Our children’s health is being failed by Stormont’s spiralling waiting lists – The Irish News view

When will anyone actually take charge of addressing our health and social care collapse?

Recovering Little Child Lying in the Hospital Bed Sleeping, Mother Holds Her Hand Comforting. Focus on the Hands. Emotional Family Moment.
More infants, children and young people are waiting longer than ever for an outpatient appointment (gorodenkoff/Getty Images)

The disintegration of our health and social care system has moved beyond the stage of steady collapse to out of control chaos. This must deeply alarm anyone with a stake in this society, and raises questions about who is actually in charge.

Is it Robin Swann and the Department of Health, or the Stormont Executive and MLAs? Or is it the health trusts and GP practices? No-one seems to know, much less be able to do anything to arrest this community’s slide towards a public health crisis.

It is only Tuesday, but already we have been given two further profoundly worrying warnings about the state of the health service from those at the sharp end.

GPs are today reporting how they are “struggling to the point of collapse”. This is a regrettably familiar theme, though no less dispiriting because of that.

More shocking, however, is yesterday’s review of children’s waiting times in Northern Ireland from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Taking a seven-year timeframe between June 2016 and June 2023, there was a 173% increase in the number of children awaiting a first outpatient appointment, from 8,170 to 22,272. The problem is accelerating, too: between June 2022 and June 2023, the number of ongoing waits increased by 22.5%.

The number of infants, children and young people having to wait more than a year for an appointment rocketed from 578 in June 2016 to 6,326 in June 2023. There was a sharp rise of one third between June 2022, when 4,743 children had been waiting for more than a year, and June 2023.

No wonder the RCPCH calls its review, which includes input from children and young people, ‘Worried and Waiting’. There are other figures among the charts, tables and graphs but they all paint a picture of a service under intolerable pressure.

The overall aim is that 50% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, with no-one waiting longer than 52 weeks.

In the Bengoa review of 2016, an agreed blueprint for ‘reconfiguration’ of the health service already exists, but the Stormont Executive has been catastrophically incompetent at implementing it

Failure to hit those targets is dismal enough for adults, but is almost unforgivable where children are concerned. Each number on a waiting list is a child whose development, education and opportunity is being stalled.

Dr Ray Nethercott of the RCPCH isn’t completely pessimistic, however: “Working together, to reconfigure how we deliver child centred health care, in the right place, at the right time, by the right people, we can better serve our infants, children and young people.”

An agreed blueprint for ‘reconfiguration’ already exists - the Bengoa review of 2016 - but the Stormont Executive has been catastrophically incompetent at implementing it. Mr Swann, supported by his ministerial colleagues, needs to get on with it - now.