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Political leadership needed to tackle health crisis

Figures for the festive period have confirmed the scale of the crisis gripping the health service, which is particularly evident in emergency departments that are struggling to cope with the number of people needing care.

More than 15,600 patients were treated at accident and emergency from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day, which is a four per cent increase on the previous year but 14 per cent up on 2015/16.

Of these, 928 had to wait over 12 hours to be seen, treated and either discharged or admitted to hospital.

Nearly 200 patients waited more than 24 hours, which is absolutely unacceptable in a 21st century health service.

However, the Health and Social Care Board has now revealed that one patient spent 49 hours waiting in an emergency department, which is quite shocking.

The board will not release further details but pointed out that while the most urgent patients will get priority, `patients with a lesser clinical priority' may have to wait longer before a bed becomes available.

Of course, winter pressures are nothing new and the health service plans for this time of year when there is a spike in demand.

However, a number of factors - including nurse shortages and the earlier onset of winter flu cases - has contributed to the challenging situation being experienced across Northern Ireland.

As the Irish News revealed earlier this week, the problems at Antrim Area Hospital became so acute that volunteers from St John Ambulance were drafted in to help.

In the past few days we have heard distressing accounts of exhausted and overstretched staff, overcrowded casualty departments and ambulances stuck outside hospitals because paramedics are unable to hand over their patients.

It also has to be acknowledged that the health services in the Republic and Britain are also under enormous strain.

In those places, senior politicians are being held to account but there is a vacuum in the north where there should be political leadership.

But without that leadership, it is difficult to see how the reforms needed to improve the healthcare system can be delivered.

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