Northern Ireland news

Robin Swann publishes recovery plan for cancer services after Covid

Health Minister Robin Swann described waiting times for cancer treatments as "unacceptable". Picture by Pacemaker
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Health Minister Robin Swann has unveiled a recovery plan to rebuild cancer services following the Covid pandemic.

The initiative comes as new statistics reveal that more than half of patients who received urgent cancer referrals from GPs in the first quarter of this year did not start treatment within the ministerial target of 62 days.

Mr Swann’s recovery plan sets out a series of short and medium term initiatives to enhance services affected by the pandemic.

These include ensuring all patients living with cancer have access to a clinical nurse specialist, appropriate psychological support, information and signposting to other services.

The plan also aims to increase screening capacity to address backlogs that have been created as a consequence of Covid, and to plan for the introduction of primary HPV testing into the cervical screening programme.

It also includes the delivery of a formal public awareness campaign encouraging people to consult their GP with signs and symptoms of cancer and new investment in cancer services, including in the fields of imaging, pathology, colposcopy and endoscopy.

The health minister said: “Similar to countries right across the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on health and social care services in Northern Ireland.

“Despite the best efforts of the HSC system and clinicians to protect the most important services, unfortunately it wasn’t always possible.

“Whilst there is still much work to do, good progress has already been made in some areas.

“We are now providing more breast screening sessions than we were before the pandemic, more CT sessions per week have been commissioned and we are constantly better utilising surgical and diagnostic capacity right across the system.

“It must be recognised, however, that Northern Ireland had significant and entirely unacceptable waiting times and deeply embedded workforce challenges long before the pandemic.

“Services have increasingly struggled to keep up with growing demand for cancer care.”

Mr Swann added: “This report states that £108 million of additional investment will be required to deliver its measures.

“There are some overlaps with the funding that has been identified as necessary to implement the Elective Care Framework.”

Published by the minister last week, the Elective Care Framework spells out proposals to deal with hospital waiting lists, including waiting times for cancer treatment.

The Department of Health also published its latest cancer waiting time statistics today.

The ministerial target is that 95% of patients urgently referred with a suspect cancer should begin their treatment within 62 days.

The statistics show that only 47% of the 1,179 patients who received an urgent GP referral for suspect cancer in January to March this year received hospital treatment within 62 days.

Cancer Research UK’s public affairs manager in Northern Ireland, Margaret Carr, said: “It’s clear from these statistics that cancer services in Northern Ireland continue to struggle and a huge effort is still needed to clear a backlog of patients waiting.

“It’s essential that urgent action is now taken by the Northern Ireland Executive to secure funding and get this work underway.

“New equipment, better ways of working and more staff to tackle long standing workforce shortages must be at the heart of these reforms which will need sufficient investment.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news