Editorial: Health service must be top priority
THE visit yesterday by the first and deputy first ministers to Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital provided a stark reminder of the extraordinary burden that has been placed on our health service staff throughout the Covid pandemic.
Paul Givan and Michelle O'Neill heard first hand about the pressures nurses, doctors and other staff continue to operate under, with the Sinn Féin vice-president saying they are "mentally and physically exhausted" and "begging for our support".
She added: "It's very clear that the health service is about to topple over if we do not take immediate action to support the health service staff, the service itself, but also to stop the spread of the virus."
These are remarkable words from a government leader and should be at the forefront of minds when the executive meets tomorrow to assess Covid restrictions and make contingencies for even greater pressures in the months ahead.
It will undoubtedly be a difficult balancing act for ministers.
Mr Givan said the executive would take a "measured approach", although his DUP colleague Gordon Lyons has been calling for a date for lifting most remaining restrictions.
Ms O'Neill spoke of the need for "a very cautious approach".
The deputy first minister has herself only fully returned to official duties after testing positive for Covid-19 three weeks ago.
She told this paper on Monday how the virus had "completely floored" her and brought home the importance of being fully vaccinated.
While there will undoubtedly be pressure from businesses to follow Britain and the Republic in fully opening up the economy, the ministers' visit yesterday is a reminder that our health service is in a more vulnerable position than other regions.
It was already struggling with huge waiting lists and alarming staff shortages before the Covid crisis hit.
Northern Ireland, for reasons that have still been fully explained, has also been experiencing higher rates of infection and serious illness than elsewhere.
Four more deaths of patients who had Covid-19 were recorded yesterday as well as a stubbornly high 1,145 new cases, as more than 380 people remain in hospital.
It must be said that our political class bear a heavy responsibility for the precarious state of the health service, having failed to follow through on repeated recommendations for reform.
While the pandemic has understandably taken precedence over the last 18 months, the interests of staff and patients should be the executive's top priority in the remaining time before an assembly election.