Being in government is a bit like fighting forest fires, the kind that sweep through tinder-dry acres in countries a lot hotter than ours.

Put one blaze out and another starts down the road. Health managers probably feel the same way.

I keep thinking of this as ministers struggle against a background of declining public confidence to tackle problems in their own bit of forest as well as do the best they can - as health secretary Alan Johnson did on Sunday morning TV - to save Gordon Brown from the flames.

The latest smouldering fire I have detected on the Department of Health's patch has been quietly visible since January when the public accounts committee produced one of its regular series of critical reports, this time on dementia services.

You may remember it. Attitudes towards the disease are much like those adopted for cancer in the 1950s: poor understanding, late diagnosis, insufficient training and a reluctance to tell the patient or family for fear of frightening them.

The committee, chaired by Tory ex-minister Edward Leigh (an outspoken Catholic critic of abortion in last week's embryology debates), made sensible recommendations; they included the need for a clinical director - dementia czar does not sound right, does it? - better awareness, better training and regulation of care homes.

Hospitals, which often concentrate on the physical symptoms that land patients in their care, fail to address the mental ones, adding to the likelihood that yet another elderly person will end up costing what a new King's Fund report estimates at an average£25,472 (I love those precise figures) a year.

Not very good care in many cases either. Up to two thirds of patients never get a proper diagnosis, up to two thirds of carers don't get a proper assessment either, let alone enough support. The current 560,000 sufferers (public accounts committee figure) or 582,827 (King's Fund) will become a million by 2026, the cost more than double to£35bn.

Well, that's cheerful, isn't it? Even more so when you consider that it might well include you or me. Pass the Paraquat, will you? So what do ministers propose to do about it when not worrying about Gordon?

They spotted this one fairly early because the National Audit Office had put the committee on the case. In March the tireless Ivan Lewis, the junior minister responsible, confirmed the imminence of a national dementia strategy - it will be unveiled soon - with a drive for earlier diagnosis and intervention, more awareness, less stigma.

Dementia is not just "old age", it eventually takes over your life. This week Mr Lewis has been announcing a "Worried About Your Memory?" campaign.

Is that it? Not quite. The other day MPs debated the public accounts committee's latest crop of reports and it was noticeable that Mr Leigh was not alone in singling out the dementia report as he criticised a range of failing government policies - and the fact that senior civil servants are rarely sacked for failure.

That reminded me of a remark I heard when listening to senior public sector managers the other day, that most of the Whitehall departments that put local authority and other bodies into "special measures" should be in them themselves.

Mr Leigh's Labour committee colleague, Don Touhig, chose to stress the point that, though 62 per cent of those in care homes have dementia, only 28 per cent of such facilities are registered specialist dementia places. Early diagnosis can mitigate both effects and costs, added Liberal Democrat John Pugh.

And this month Labour troublemaker David Taylor, who sits on the all-party dementia group, introduced a private member's bill to address the related "massive problem" of overprescribing of antipsychotics by untrained staff in care homes to address even mild behavioural difficulties.

Abuse of the "chemical cosh" upsets patients and family, adding to other problems. Antipsychotics should be used as a last resort, Mr Taylor told colleagues. They should also be better regulated.

Easier said than done, but ministers are trying to firefight the problem. Ivan Lewis promises to "bring dementia out of the shadows". Mr Taylor calls it "piercing the Stygian gloom". No, he doesn't mean Gordon.

See Share rising mental health costs, says King's Fund for more.