Leading article

Looming health cuts a serious concern

In the absence of firm information emerging from the ongoing talks process, observers are examining any public words or appearances in the hope of gleaning a sense of whether we are on course for a restored executive or a form of direct rule from Britain.

A joint appearance by Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster at the Conservative Party conference Ulster Fry breakfast yesterday offered a rare opportunity to gauge any change in tone or a slightly warmer body language between the two leaders.

Unfortunately for those searching for signs of optimism, the event was marked by a clash over Britishness, with the Sinn Féin northern leader telling the audience: ``The north isn't British.''

The DUP leader responded: ``I don't want to turn this into a row but Northern Ireland is British.''

Sharp exchanges over identity are nothing new, of course.

But if this is an indication of the level of the debate within the talks then it is little wonder people feel a sense of despair.

Meanwhile, the problems in our public services are piling up with the civil servants, who are effectively running Northern Ireland at present, warning of significant pressures on spending.

These are not idle threats.

Schools are already having their budgets squeezed and the beleaguered health service is facing more cuts, possibly within weeks.

Hospital ward closures, cutbacks to agency and locum staff and a reduction in non-urgent elective surgery are among a range of measures being considered in a bid to tackle a multi-million pound shortfall.

The inevitable outcome of cuts that directly impact on patient care will be longer waiting times, resources stretched to breaking point and a poorer quality of service.

There is clear pressure on health trusts to balance their books but they also have a statutory responsibility in terms of the provision of health and social care to the population of Northern Ireland.

This is a time when we need a fully functioning, accountable and effective executive to take the decisions needed to ensure we have a health service fit for the 21st century.

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