Permanent secretary Clive Gowdy offered three possible timescales for reforming health and social services in Northern Ireland.

The most optimistic - an immediate agreement on setting up the Assembly which would allow plans to go ahead, rolling out over the next three to four years.

The most pessimistic - the debate rolls on with no action because 'if we wait another week or another month, they may reach agreement'.

An impasse - current 'agreements' abandoned for new negotiations, giving 'a better planning framework' because it would take six to nine months. In that situation, Mr Gowdy said, present health minister John McFall has emphasised that he would want to make decisions.