This Week

Northern Ireland's troubled health service was bracing itself this week for a further period of stagnation if the new Assembly is suspended.

The failure to resolve the decommissioning crisis prompted the government to rush through legislation to resume direct rule over Northern Ireland. But if a political resolution is not found the impact on the health service could be disastrous.

Dr Brian Patterson, chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee in Northern Ireland, said the way the health service was being run amounted to 'numerous ways of doing nothing'.

'Even short-term planning is impossible. We haven't had a clear policy deci - sion made since Labour came to power in 1997. We have all been waiting for the Assembly.

'Since the Assembly came to power they've been reining themselves into the job and nothing much has happened.

And now we are bracing ourselves for suspension. The politicians are fiddling while the health service burns.'

Dr Patterson said the 6.6 per cent increase on last year's funding allocation, announced by health minister Bairbre de Brun last week, would only allow the health service to 'stand still'.

Out of a total budget of£2bn, Ms de Brun allocated£3m for children's services, increased the winter pressures baseline by£3m, and instructed trusts and boards to plan cancer services in anticipation of£9m from additional tobacco duties announced by chancellor Gordon Brown in his pre-Budget statement.

Despite a cash injection of£3m in December, winter pressures appeared to be reaching a new peak this week, with patients waiting on trolleys for the first time at Belfast City Hospital.

Norman Bennett, director of finance at the city's Royal Group of Hospitals and Dental Hospitals trust, acknowledged that the minister was 'locked into' a budget inherited from the previous administration. But he insisted: 'It's not a good settlement. We were hoping that there might have been some flexibility in the 6.6 per cent increase that could have given us some money to meet current problems, but it's all eaten up by pay and inflation and money that is ear - marked for different things.

'Most acute hospital trusts in Northern Ireland are carrying deficits of various magnitude - the total could be as much as£30m-£40m - and there's nothing in the minister's statement to allow us to address that.'

The streamlining of acute services, and New NHS innovations such as primary care groups, are 'on hold' in Northern Ireland.

Hugh Mills, chief executive of Sperrin Lakeland trust, said it was 'questionable' whether the 6.6 per cent increase would even cover inflation costs. 'The main concern for us is that if we are entering another period of uncertainty.'