news focus

So was the conference a success? Although from the IHM's point of view, the important answer to whether it will have the ear of the government will take a little longer, certainly it can be happy with the smiles on the faces of the delegates leaving the Waterfront Hall last Wednesday.

Many were not surprised at the unchanged rhetoric from the centre. Some were a little disappointed that they seemed deaf to concerns about Shifting the Balance - or Shifting the Deckchairs as it has become known in some quarters.

Yet there was a healthy number of political punches being thrown in the main auditorium - from chief executive Stuart Marples' barbed funnies about the star system, to Northern Ireland health minister Bairbre de Brun's message to Westminster that more cash was needed in the province to prop up its 'suffering' services. She must have been a little disappointed at health secretary Alan Milburn's no-show - he was on unspecified 'war' duty.

But the conference's real value lay outside the main auditorium, in the nuts and bolts workshops. The consensus was that they were excellent. National Institute for Clinical Excellence chief executiveAndrew Dillon, showing an understanding of the pressures on the NHS resulting from his work, won a round of applause from an audience which suddenly believed he was 'one of us'.

Jenny Simmons, manager at North Hertfordshire and Stevenage primary care trust, said after the two coffeefuelled days in Belfast: 'The workshops have demonstrated there are a lot of interesting ideas going on in the NHS and quite often that is simply forgotten about.'

She added: 'The big difference from conferences in the past is that five or 10 years ago the discussions were all about how to implement change, but at this conference people have been talking about the very future of the NHS - will it survive? As the workshops showed, most of us are just getting on with it. The improvements are already coming. It is just going to take time; the government should remember that.'