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Health service cash boost is welcome but change is needed

The announcement this week of an additional £40 million in funding for the beleaguered health service in Northern Ireland was widely welcomed as a positive step that would ease some of the pressures on front line services.

This money was identified as part of the annual autumn monitoring round at Stormont which allows for the re-allocation of departmental funds.

It is a development that will be viewed with a sense of relief among staff and patients who feared that key services would suffer and waiting lists grow as the department of health struggled to balance its books.

Although the fact that the health service is under enormous strain is nothing new, a heightened sense of alarm was introduced in August when the north's five health trusts began a consultation process aimed at saving £70 million from this year's budget.

Public meetings were held to discuss proposals and unusually the consultation period was reduced from the normal three months to just six weeks.

Among the proposals under consideration were ward closures, a reduction in locum and agency staff and home care packages and a drastic cut to fertility treatments.

Just days before the trusts were due to reveal what services were being affected, the department of finance made an additional £40 million available.

This money will allow trusts to step back from the most severe and immediate cutbacks although savings still have to be made in parts of the system.

However, members of the public are entitled to feel slightly puzzled about the events of the past few weeks.

They may well ask if it was strictly necessary to launch an urgent and truncated consultation exercise when it was always likely that extra money would be found in the regular monitoring round.

This was an exercise that would have caused understandable anxiety to patients and also those working in the health service.

The department of health maintains it would have been `irresponsible' not to have engaged in advance planning and to have done nothing could have led to services being halted in an unplanned way early next year.

Perhaps, although there are a number of unsatisfactory aspects to the consultation process which will lead people to wonder if the responses received would have made any real difference.

Of course, it is far from satisfactory for the health service to be lurching from crisis to crisis with waiting lists spiralling and an overstretched system creaking at the seams.

We simply cannot go on as we are, seeing services deteriorate to the point of collapse, as the Bengoa report warned last year.

Change is needed but it needs to be driven by an accountable minister and a transparent process.

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