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Health service reform urgently needed

HEALTH minister Robin Swann has set out in the starkest terms the scale of the task that lies ahead for our health and social care service as it looks to a post-pandemic future.

Waiting lists, vastly longer than anywhere in Britain's NHS before Covid-19, have grown to such an extent that Mr Swann told the assembly it could take up to 10 years to clear them.

There are staff shortages and unfilled posts at all levels of the health service, including around 3,000 empty nursing jobs.

Stormont's year-to-year budgets further complicate matters when multi-year funding is required to address many of the concerns.

Mr Swann likened the financial situation to "fighting the scourge of waiting lists with at least one hand tied behind our backs".

"We must start putting this right. It is a long-term task and it needs long-term, recurrent funding."

Mr Swann is, of course, not the first Stormont health minister to issue dire warnings of this sort.

The problems are by now well-known and thoroughly diagnosed. Multiple studies - seven in the last 20 years - have examined the issues and come to essentially the same conclusions.

These include a need to centralise complex services at fewer sites, ending a culture of dependence on large hospitals and promoting better general health, thus preventing more people from falling ill.

It was encouraging that the last major report, led by Professor Rafael Bengoa, and its 10-year blueprint for reform won cross-party backing.

But that was in 2016; we are now almost half-way through the timescale and while there has been progress in some areas, it seems that many of the problems have only worsened.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic must be acknowledged, but so too must the three lost years when devolution collapsed because of disputes between Sinn Féin and the DUP; in the north, politics has a perhaps unique impact on health outcomes.

Through its staff's sacrifice, courage and adaptability in the face of the Covid crisis, our health and social care service has repeatedly shown enormous heart in how it cares for us; the organisation and efficiency with which the vaccine programme is being delivered is an outstanding example of this.

Not all of the solutions to curing the ills of the health service lie at Stormont, but a great many of them do. It is long overdue that they are delivered, for all of the people.

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Leading article