Leading article

Health service crisis needs urgent action

The final day at Stormont on Wednesday before the assembly was dissolved was marked by a flurry of ministerial statements but essentially we are now entering a period of limbo for our political institutions.

Few expect the executive to be restored within a short time after the March 2 election and there is a real prospect of protracted negotiations and the possibility of direct rule being re-introduced.

In the meantime, there are real and pressing matters that simply cannot wait.

While the recent focus has understandably been on the fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, the already serious problems in our health service have been growing with the GP crisis coming to a head.

Family doctors have been warning for some time that the crucial service they provide is under severe pressure.

An ageing population with complex health issues and a shortage of GPs has put existing services under extreme strain with fears that many rural practices may close.

The crisis in Portadown recently was just one example of the acute difficulties facing primary care.

Bannview practice was on the verge of closure after the last GP resigned, with other surgeries saying they were unable to take on its 5,000 patients.

Hopes were raised then dashed after a contractor who had been due to take over the practice subsequently withdrew.

The British Medical Association (BMA) says this is not an isolated problem and many practices in Northern Ireland could disappear.

We are now facing a situation where GPs may resign from the NHS, with patients potentially having to pay to see their family doctor.

This would be a drastic step which would cause immense difficulties for patients and the wider health service.

Health minister Michelle O'Neill had promised action to address some of the pressures facing the NHS but the collapse of Stormont with no agreed budget has created enormous uncertainty.

This will also have implications for waiting times, which remain unacceptably long as the most recent figures for emergency departments demonstrate.

According to statistics for December, almost 900 patients were left waiting for treatment for more than 12 hours, more than treble the number for the same month in 2015.

There was also a sharp rise in the overall number of people attending accident and emergency, up more than 3,000 on the previous year.

If patients are unable to see a GP they will turn to accident and emergency units and it is hard to see how our hospitals could cope with any increase in demand.

Clearly, there are grave issues in our health system which simply cannot wait until our political institutions are restored.

The health minister must take whatever steps she can to alleviate these urgent problems.

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