Northern Ireland news

Charity blasts Stormont deadlock as cancer strategy gathers dust for one year

Former Health Minister Robin Swann (right) launching the NI cancer strategy one year ago.
Allan Preston

ONE year after it was published, Northern Ireland’s Cancer Strategy is at risk of becoming “yet another redundant strategy on the shelf,” a charity has warned.
The NI Cancer Strategy was unveiled by the former health minister Robin Swann on March 22 last year, with the ambition of transforming cancer services over the next 10 years.
While progress has been made in several areas, it still requires a Stormont Executive to sign off on the substantial funding required - including £73m of capital investment and £145m of annual funding.
Two Rapid Diagnosis Centres are already operational in Whiteabbey Hospital and South Tyrone Hospital, and a review of teenager and young adult services is at its closing stages.
Sarah Christie, Macmillan’s Policy and Public Affairs Manager, said this was still not enough to deliver "top class outcomes" for cancer patients in Northern Ireland.

 “When the Cancer Strategy was published…Macmillan called for long-term investment, joined up working and strong governance to ensure its delivery,” she said. 

“Without a functioning Assembly, none of these calls are being met. 

“The Cancer Strategy took years of sustained effort by civil servants, clinicians, people with lived experience and charities to get across the line.”
She said the longer it was left to implement the changes, the more expensive it would become.

“Given the pressures on our health service right now, we literally cannot afford to wait,” she said.

With Northern Ireland's worst cancer waiting times on record published in January, she added: “How many more ways can we say it? We need an Assembly. We need investment. We need the strategy to deliver on its ambition. We need courage and strong leadership from elected representatives to get back to work to navigate the challenges in our health service and make the long-lasting change that improves cancer care for people in every part of NI. 

“One year on, we should be thinking about the difference a year can make. Instead, without an Assembly in place, we’re looking at yet another redundant strategy on the shelf.”

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson has previously spoken about his own experience of surviving oesophageal cancer, and said the delays were putting lives at risk.
“It’s exceptionally frustrating, while many of the professionals involved in the cancer strategy are continuing to work very hard to deliver aspects of it – without a health minister in place, without a health committee to provide guidance and support, it will inevitably fall behind,” he told the Irish News.
“On a personal basis, I despair for the number of people for whom late diagnosis is a terminal diagnosis. That the journey simply isn’t fast or smart enough.
“It’s beyond frustrating and actually, not to put too fine a point on it, it is criminal of those that are holding Northern Ireland back, holding back our Assembly and permission to have a health minister and committee.
“They are condemning people to death.”
A Department of Health spokesperson called it “extremely disappointing” that performance targets for cancer waiting times were not being met.
“The length of time patients in Northern Ireland were waiting for assessment, diagnosis and treatment for cancer was increasing before the pandemic and this has been exacerbated in the past three years,” they said.
Other areas of progress were listed, including work to improve the mental wellbeing of cancer patients and an expansion of the Rapid Diagnostic Centres to accept referrals from GPs across Northern Ireland.
The spokesperson added that while these changes were important, without an agreed multi-year budget for health any planning beyond the short term would be "extremely challenging."

In a statement, Mr Swann told the Irish News: “There are very few families in Northern Ireland that haven’t been affected by a cancer diagnosis. It’s an incredibly cruel disease and one that requires swift action at the very earliest point.

“The publication of the 10-year cancer strategy was one of the achievements that I am most proud of during my time as Minister. It was an ambitious plan, but at its core was the desire to drive improvements and deliver better outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer."

He added: “Unfortunately, the ongoing impasse at Stormont has seen the strategy robbed of certainty of funding, as well as the collective political leadership necessary to drive through its original objectives. Cancer thrives in any vacuum and unfortunately for as long as there is no Executive to fully implement the Strategy, more people I fear are perhaps going to come to avoidable harm.”