Michael McGimpsey’s performance as Health Minister has been one of the rare success stories of the Northern Ireland Executive. Despite acquiring one of the most challenging departments, and facing a constant fight to retain funding, the South Belfast MLA has delivered free prescriptions and targeted investment where it is badly needed. Tackling the most pressing health issues and seeking to modernise the ambulance service’s elderly fleet, McGimpsey is a minister with an understanding of his brief.
With this in mind, I am all the more puzzled at the Department of Health’s frosty reception to the Ireland Air Ambulance initiative, which is currently undergoing trials. Largely it is accepted that a degree of centralisation and specialisation is inevitable within the modern NHS and Northern Ireland, which has a small, dispersed rural population, is obviously no exception. The ability rapidly to transport patients from areas where local hospital provision is either not available, or is inadequate for particular emergencies, surely has the potential to save lives.
I appreciate that ground ambulances must remain a pressing priority in terms of the department’s funding. But the proposed air service would be provided by a voluntary organisation, which is a model successfully used in the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed it is precisely an example of the type of ‘third sector’ involvement which David Cameron wishes to encourage as an adjunct to government provision of public services.
Rather than treating the air ambulance as a threat to its funding, the Department of Health should welcome this initiative, as an aid to providing an improved, efficient service. Maintaining the NHS monolith should not be afforded higher priority than delivering effective provision, particularly when an Ulster Unionist minister is in charge.