Northern Ireland

Health minister warns of 'difficult winter' as waiting lists top 300,000

THE health minister has warned of a "difficult winter" as waiting lists hit more than 300,000 patients still to receive their first appointment with a consultant.

Robin Swann said the health service is "very fragile" due to the Covid-19 pandemic and "work to rebuild services will take time".

A total of 311,090 patients were waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment at the end of June – 3.9 per cent (11,654) more than by the same time last year (299,436).

More than two-fifths (43.9 per cent; 136,666) had been waiting more than 52 weeks, compared with 35.2 per cent (104,450) in June 2019.

The ministerial target was that by March 2021, at least 50 per cent of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks, and no patient should wait longer than 52 weeks.

The quarter ending June 2020 saw 41,500 attendances for a first outpatient appointment, a decrease of 65.3 per cent from the same period last year (119,661).

Patient numbers waiting to be admitted to hospitals also increased by 11.3 per cent to 97,243 at the end of June.

Mr Swann said work is continuing to rebuild services amid the pandemic, such as initiatives announced last month on day surgery and orthopaedics.

But he said that "running both Covid and non-Covid services is a massive challenge".

"Work to rebuild services will take time and will be entirely dependant on the path Covid will take," he said.

"We all have a role to play in protecting our health service and supporting our staff – by following the public health advice on social distancing, hand washing and wearing face coverings.

"Stopping the virus spreading helps protect services as well as people.

"We are facing a very difficult winter for an already very fragile health service."

In diagnostics, 149,403 patients were waiting by the end of June – 7.8 per cent more than last year.

Almost three-quarters (73.8 per cent, 110,225) of patients were waiting longer than nine weeks for a diagnostic test, compared with 52.7 per cent (73,087) at the end of June 2019.

Over a third (35.1 per cent, 52,393) were waiting more than 26 weeks, compared with 25.6 per cent (35,519) last year.

A total of 235,019 diagnostic tests were reported on and dispatched to hospitals during the quarter ending June 2020, which was 45 per cent fewer than the quarter ending June 2019 (427,585).

Of the 49,452 urgent diagnostic tests reported on, 92.2 per cent (45,613) were reported on within two days.

Dervilia?Kernaghan, head of care services for Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, said it was "extremely concerning to see waiting times continue to spiral".

"Lengthy waiting times have been a worrying issue for many years and it is soul-destroying for patients and staff to see that problem made worse by coronavirus," she said.

Mark Taylor, director of the Royal College of Surgeons in Northern Ireland, called for the setting up of "Covid-light" sites as a priority so that surgery can continue through any further spike in infections.

"We need fast testing for patients prior to admission, on admission and before discharge, to do all that we can to protect our patients and staff," he said.

"This demands rapid transformation in ways of working, with more day-case centres, early identification of capacity and greater flexibility in using the independent sector where necessary to ensure NHS patients get timely care based on need, not ability to pay."

Stormont parties also expressed concern over the statistics.

Sinn Féin health spokesperson Colm Gildernew said the Department of Health "must develop a plan to meet its obligations to reduce waiting lists".

The DUP's Pam Cameron, vice-chair of Stormont's health committee, said the public are "rightly demanding greater clarity on the timetable" for rebuilding services.

Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said waiting times were "well beyond unacceptable" before Covid-19, but the pandemic "reinforces the point that old methods of working do not deliver".