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Editorial: Is the health service collapsing before our eyes, in real-time?

It seems that almost daily we are faced with fresh evidence of the overwhelming pressures facing our health and social care system and the staff who consistently go beyond the call of duty to care for the sick, vulnerable and those in need or crisis.

On Thursday, for example, the latest hospital waiting list figures were published. These showed that in the first quarter of this year, there were 401,201 people waiting for their first outpatient appointment with a consultant - a near 30,000 rise on the same period in 2022.

In addition, the vast majority – 81 per cent – are waiting more than nine weeks for their first appointment. This is far in excess of the 50 per cent the Department of Health was aiming for; many will regard even that target as feeble for a modern society in 2023.

Understandably, the department's permanent secretary, Peter May, said the figures were "entirely unacceptable".

On the same day, the Southern trust warned that a shortage of consultants at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry is placing inpatient care in general medicine at risk.

The hospital's stroke service is also being withdrawn from next week. It lost its emergency general surgery provision last year.

Individually, the waiting list problems and the various issues at Daisy Hill are alarming enough. But taken together - along with a steadily accumulating mountain of other warning signs, such as the Audit Office's concerns about the investment in mental health services - they add weight to the view that the health service is collapsing before our eyes, in real-time.

This is as worrying for patients as it is for health and social care staff. 'Moral distress' is a phrase being increasingly used by organisations like the Royal College of Nursing to describe the sense of helplessness and frustration felt by their members.

Professor Rafael Bengoa's 2016 blueprint for transforming the health service emphasised the importance of change in a controlled and planned way. What we are experiencing is indeed a form of transformation, but of the worst possible kind, because it is all too often happening in an uncontrolled and ad hoc manner.

It would be wrong to suggest that, when the DUP eventually decide to end their Windsor Framework sulk and allow Stormont to return, the crisis will immediately be solved. Indeed, MLAs' failure to get to grips with our health and social care has been a defining feature of power-sharing.

Action, and not the words and platitudes we've experienced before, is essential if a future Assembly is to begin to redeem itself.

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