News John Downing

Thursday 18 September 2014

Coalition partners growing farther apart but Health is real timebomb

Published 28/10/2013 | 01:55

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Dr Reilly's restructuring of the Health Service is a positive move, but it cannot disguise the intense pressure surrounding the minister and the continuing doubt about his future in the Government

ENDA Kenny will reflect that it is a case of "so far, so good" if he takes at face value the results of yesterday's first opinion poll since Budget Day. But the storm clouds are gathering as sure as winter is belatedly creeping in on us. Things look all right at Fine Gael's end of the Coalition, but Labour is not much better off than it was before the Budget.

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And the whole tangled mess that is health spending means there will soon be very fundamental and practical questions being asked about the entirety of Budget 2014.

The Red C opinion poll in yesterday's 'Sunday Business Post' is good news for Kenny's Fine Gael, which is up two points over the previous month to 29pc. It is not good news for Labour, which is down one point to 9pc. It is "as-you-were" for Fianna Fail, steady on 23pc, and Sinn Fein, also unchanged, on 17pc; Independents and Others are down one point to 22pc.

FG sources were yesterday quietly saying it believed this augured well for the party, though six out of 10 people think the Budget, delivered a fortnight ago tomorrow, was "unfair".

"Well, four out of 10 felt it was 'fair'," an FG source argued. "When you consider that this is the eighth austerity Budget, that's definitely a result. We are the only party to actually go up, and the opposition got no traction from their criticisms."

It is a reasonable take on things. But even after giving big public concessions to Labour, they got no bounce. That does not bode well for the future of the Coalition facing into very difficult local and European elections in seven months' time.

This writer is among those who acknowledged Labour 'wins' on October 15, keeping the cuts to €2.5bn and mitigating welfare and education cuts. But the public does not, so far at any rate, appear to be taking those points on board.

Richard Colwell, the boss of Red C, said yesterday that 62pc of Labour supporters found the Budget "unfair" compared with 32pc of FG backers. It seems to bear out the mood at the FG national conference in Limerick only days before the Budget, and the stoic view of many middle-class FG people that we must keep taking harsh economic medicine.

But it leaves Labour to take the blame for the pain, while FG gets the kudos for signs of a cure for our economic ailments. Labour has grounds for feeling this is crude and knee-jerk, but politics is sometimes like that.

However, the travails of Labour as a threat to the longevity of the Coalition pale into insignificance when you put the spotlight back on the health system. An intriguing feature of yesterday's survey was that a very narrow majority of those questioned gave a confidence verdict to Health Minister James Reilly. The finding, however, is very far from allowing the minister's defenders to argue that "with one bound our hero is free".

It is very probably related to the fatalism that surrounds the health services. And much of that is caused by the feeling that nobody really has proper control of health, including Dr Reilly, who showed very scant knowledge of his department's finances on Budget night.

It is important to note that many good things happen every day within the health services, as there is a constant danger of demoralising the tens of thousands of dedicated people working there. It is also interesting to note the report in yesterday's 'Sunday Independent' that Dr Reilly intends fast-tracking another facet of the service's total re-structuring, which involves the money following the patient within the hospital system.

This is an important feature of the work in progress involving ending the hated Health Service Executive and, hopefully, replacing it with a more structured and answerable system. It is a positive move, but it cannot disguise the intense pressure surrounding Dr Reilly and the continuing doubt about his medium-term future in the Government.

THE health service re-structuring work will continue. But it will do nothing to plug the gaping hole in the health services in 2014. As it is, the services are extremely vulnerable to a predicted quick cold snap in early winter and the resultant stresses.

We have known since Budget night that the required health spending cuts for 2014 amount to €666m. However, we learned some days later that realistically this would be nearer €1bn due to other demands such as upgrading maternity services in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar case.

Some time this week, HSE bosses must detail how such extraordinary savings are to be made. It is likely to involve considerable curtailment of services. It will not make for encouraging reading, and the political fallout will be considerable.

The ticking health timebomb inside Budget 2014 may yet wreak havoc.

Irish Independent

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