Northern Ireland news

Stormont watchdog committee chair calls on health minister to publish plans for rebuilding of cancer services

Health committee chair Colm Gildernew is seeking assurances about the rebuilding of cancer services following the first wave of the pandemic
Seanín Graham

THE chair of a Stormont scrutiny committee has called on health minister Robin Swann to urgently publish plans detailing how the system will tackle delayed cancer treatment due to the pandemic.

Sinn Féin's Colm Gildernew, who chairs the health committee, said they had asked the Department of Health last month to give an outline of how services will be rebuilt - especially for those suspected cases referred at the beginning of the year but had not yet been seen due to the outbreak.

In yesterday's Irish News a retired nurse with almost 50 years experience revealed she was forced to pay £3,000 for private tests to discover she had a large cancerous tumour - despite being red-flagged in January by her GP for a hospital assessment.

Cassie McNeill (77) from Cushendun in Co Antrim, spoke of her "anger and frustration" at the health service's handling of the crisis, saying that despite repeated messages urging those with symptoms to "seek help", she did not receive it.

Mr Gildernew said cases like Mrs McNeill's highlighted the huge levels of anxiety caused by delays.

In March, thousands of hospital appointments and operations were cancelled across Northern Ireland as the health service was overhauled to prepare for a coronavirus 'surge'.

Screening for some cancers was "paused" while testing and treatment was also affected.

"We're very aware that people who are ill need to come forward and it's crucial the support and services are there. The committee has asked the minister what his plans are. We haven't seen them to date, we need to see them," Mr Gildernew said.

"We acknowledge the huge pressures on General Practice and the whole system but the minister does need to bring forward that strategic framework for rebuilding services. It does need to happen with some urgency - behind all of these statistics is an individual story.

"There's going to be a lot of non-Covid related problems which will be harder to deal with, including mental health problems, when we get back to a different health system."

The committee chair said they had been given assurances that "extra capacity" had been put into red-flag cases, who should be seen by a hospital consultant within 14 days of a GP referral.

He added: "So it's very worrying to hear reports from patients and GPs that these assurances are not happening on the ground."

Earlier this week, a leading cancer expert revealed a 60 per cent drop in the number of urgent GP referrals for suspected cases during the pandemic.

Professor Mark Lawler also said treatment had been dramatically affected with chemotherapy attendances reduced by half, while patient access to clinical trials was down by nearly 80 per cent.

Prof Lawler, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Queen's University Belfast, told a meeting of Stormont's All Party Group on Cancer (APGC) that cancer services must be restored "as quickly as possible".

"Our data unequivocally shows the devastating effects that the pandemic has had, both on people at risk of developing cancer and on patients with cancer," he said.

"Our research also highlights the need to have accurate cancer data in real time to allow us to make the best decisions for the benefit of our patients. Otherwise we are fighting both cancer and Covid-19 with one arm tied behind our back."

When asked if the minister intended to publish a plan for the future of cancer services, a Department of Health spokeswoman said trusts have been "tasked with developing service rebuilding plans for respective areas including cancer services."

She added: "The Department acknowledges the severe impact that Covid-19 has had on a range of key services including cancer services. The need to ensure patient safety and meet the challenges inherent in responding to the pandemic has meant that many procedures and diagnostic appointments have had to be postponed or delayed.

"However our dedicated staff have worked incredibly hard to ensure that urgent and emergency cancer treatment has continued during this period. Where difficult decisions were taken to delay diagnostics or treatment during the response to Covid-19, safety netting was in place to ensure that cancer patients can resume treatment on the appropriate pathway as soon as it is safe to do so," he said.

"In parallel with continuing to manage this crisis, significant work is underway to rebuild our health and social care system in the wake of the first Covid-19 surge. Our immediate focus in the coming weeks will be on stepping up any urgent services which were paused."

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