Northern Ireland news

Northern Ireland health system 'at point of collapse' as waiting times hit all-time high

Health campaigners have described the figures as "distressing"
Brendan Hughes

THE healthcare system in Northern Ireland is "at the point of collapse", campaigners have warned as consultant waiting times hit an all-time high.

Newly released Stormont figures show 306,180 people in September were waiting for their first consultant appointment – an eight per cent increase on the same period last year.

The waiting list statistics are an all-time high for the UK amid fears of a challenging winter ahead.

Of these, 232,239 patients (75.9 per cent) were waiting more than nine weeks for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment.

Read More: Health system at breaking point says Westminster committee chair

More than a third (35.5 per cent, 108,582 patients) were waiting more than a year.

The figures fail to meet Stormont's 2019/20 outpatient appointment waiting time targets that by March 2020, at least 50 per cent of patients wait no longer than nine weeks, and none are waiting longer than a year.

Despite new elective care centres being set up last year to treat cataracts, an additional 1,263 patients were still waiting to be seen.

The escalating waiting times have been blamed on funding issues, staffing problems and management, and the lack of a functioning devolved government at Stormont.

Mark Jones, deputy director for Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), described the statistics for the period ending September 2019 as "distressing".

"Northern Ireland's healthcare system is at the point of collapse," he said.

"Our colleagues across health and social care are all agreed that the waiting times we have seen over the last few years are totally unacceptable.

"We are working tirelessly in very challenging conditions, but without political support and the required funding to bring about the changes needed, it will be not be possible to fix these enduring problems."

RCS added that unlike Britain, Northern Ireland records its waiting times in two stages, meaning the "real wait of many patients will be even longer" than the statistics suggest.

Dr Anne Carson, deputy chair of British Medical Association's Northern Ireland Council, said the issues are "beyond frustrating for health service staff and patients alike".

"It's no secret that our waiting lists are the worst in the UK and growing, yet our politicians continue to do nothing to resolve this," she said.

"We are now approaching another busy winter period and morale among doctors is at an all-time low."

Stormont's Department of Health reiterated its apology over the north's waiting times.

"The solutions, however, are extremely challenging. They require sustained investment to address backlogs and build our workforce, as well as the radical reshaping of services," it said in a statement.

The department said that since 2014, additional funding to help bridge the gap between increased demand and the system's capacity had been "in much shorter supply".

Richard Pengelly, the department's permanent secretary, has previously said funding of between £750 million and £1 billion is required to eradicate waiting lists.

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