Healthcare news

North's waiting lists ‘will double in five years' without urgent intervention

Northern Ireland currently has the worst hospital waiting lists in the NHS
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Stormont ministers have been told that Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting lists, already the worst in the UK, will double in the next five years without urgent investment and reform.

There are currently more than 335,000 waiting on a first consultant-led appointment in Northern Ireland, with more than half of those people waiting longer than a year.

During an Executive meeting today, ministers were briefed by the Department of Health on the waiting lists crisis, and were told that the number could rise to between 600-700,000 by March 2026 without intervention.

The department briefing paper said the health service needs £707.5 million of additional investment over a five-year period to reduce the backlog of patients and to build service capacity to meet annual demand.

The waiting lists have led to increased pressures on emergency departments across the north, as patients attempt to seek treatment via A&Es.

Those pressures have been further exacerbated by increased numbers of Covid-19 admissions.

Ministers were told that there is currently “insufficient capacity” in the health and social care system to meet demand in Northern Ireland.

The briefing said that the “allocation of non-recurrent funding masks the underlying capacity deficit” but this “does not allow for investment in our workforce or long term planning”.

The briefing note said: “While non-recurrent funding has helped address the backlog in the past, when it stops, waiting times immediately start to rise.”

Ministers were told that the department needs an additional £475m spread over five years just to get rid of the current waiting lists backlog.

An additional £232m would then be required to rebuild the system to ensure that demand meets capacity, to increase training numbers and to target recruitment based on demand analysis.

Ministers were told that “some necessary changes will be politically challenging” but that they would need the backing of the Executive if they were to succeed.

The briefing said that the department’s intention is to clear the waiting list backlog by March 2026.

The Executive summit to discuss the waiting lists emergency was agreed last month following a meeting of the Stormont party leaders’ forum.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said at the time she had directly asked British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a cash injection to tackle the spiralling problem, which she said was “intolerable”.

Last month, Health Minister Robin Swann also unveiled his five-year plan to tackle the crisis.

Speaking at the time he said: “Our waiting times are the worst of any UK region.

“It is simply not acceptable to me that the people of Northern Ireland should receive a lower standard of care than in other parts of the UK.

“The numbers waiting are shocking, but it is the experience of those patients waiting for care that is truly heart-breaking.

“Behind the statistics, there are real life stories of people waiting far too long in pain and discomfort.

“There are people on waiting lists who are living in continuous pain.”

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