DUP MLA Edwin Poots has accused Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill of putting her party before the needs of cancer patients in Northern Ireland.
New figures have revealed that the government’s targets for cancer waiting times have once again been missed.
The report, published by the Department of Health, shows that in December only 68.6% of patients with an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer started their treatment within 62 days.
This represents a significant drop from the 72.2% of patients who started treatment in December 2015. The government target is 95% .
The figures also show a sharp fall in the number of women first seen within 14 days of an urgent referral for suspected breast cancer during the last quarter, with 99.4% in October 2016 compared to 91.4% in December.
Mr Poots hit out at former health minister Ms O’Neill, accusing her of walking away from growing waiting lists.
Mr Poots, himself a former health minister, said: “When Sinn Fein were taking the decision at the end of last year to crash devolution and force an election Michelle O’Neill will have been well aware these issues were sitting on her desk as she walked away from it.
“Those were the choices made by Sinn Fein and by Michelle O’Neill; that the needs of cancer patients were less important than their narrow party political demands.
“It has also been revealed that a quarter of radiologist posts are currently vacant; something that impacts on how quickly patients are receiving a cancer diagnosis.”
UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs said the figures were “simply inexcusable” and described the situation as a “clear failure of policy”.
The East Antrim MLA added: “The bigger tragedy is what this means for the patients concerned.
“Cancer is a disease that cruelly thrives during a period of vacuum, so the sooner it is detected and treatment begins, the better the chance patients have of a successful outcome.
“If the two largest parties can ever get their act together and form a functioning Executive the next health minister must better focus their efforts on cancer prevention, early detection and identify the cause of the delays and particularly the gaps within the local medical workforce.”
Sinn Féin health spokesperson Pat Sheehan said Ms O’Neill has repeatedly stated the current waiting times “are not acceptable”.
He added: “It is only through transforming health and social care system that we can address excessive waiting times.”