Health staff need ‘respite’ from coronavirus pandemic before ‘high-pressure’ work to tackle NI waiting lists, says Health Minister Robin Swann as new NHS figures reveal scale of problem compared to rest of UK

Health staff will need “respite” from the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic before they can begin “high pressure” work to reduce surgery waiting lists .

By Niall Deeney
Friday, 12th February 2021, 6:35 am
Surgical waiting lists in Northern Ireland are longer than in any other part of the UK. Photo credit: Rui Vieira/PA Wire
Surgical waiting lists in Northern Ireland are longer than in any other part of the UK. Photo credit: Rui Vieira/PA Wire

That was the message from Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann yesterday, as new NHS figures revealed the scale of the problem here in comparison with other parts of the UK.

New figures from NHS England showed that in December nearly 225,000 people were waiting more than a year for surgery – the highest number recorded in over a decade – from a total of 4.52 million patients.

That means roughly one in every 20 patients in England has had to wait at least one full year for surgery, including routine knee and hip operations.

But in Northern Ireland, nearly half of all patients have to wait at least a year for their very first outpatient appointment with a consultant, before even being booked in for surgery on the NHS.

The latest Northern Ireland statistics – published in November and covering the period up to September 30 last year – showed that there were 327,189 patients waiting on their first consultant-led outpatient appointment, with 47.5% (155,497) waiting a year.

Before the pandemic reached Northern Ireland, Mr Swann used his first public statement after taking on the post of health minister in January to promise to make the waiting list “emergency” in Northern Ireland a priority.

While those plans were blown off course by the mass cancellation of operations as the health service dealt with the surge of coronavirus patients in the spring, autumn and winter, Mr Swann said yesterday that he is “keen to get back up and running” once the pressures from the pandemic are reduced.

But, speaking at the Stormont health committee yesterday, he said staff would need “a break” for their “psychological well-being” after enduring what one senior medic recently described as the worst ever winter in the history of the NHS due to the surge in coronavirus patients after Christmas.

“We started off from a very bad place,” he said.

“I’ve said it and I think other parties are acknowledging that we started off in that bad place due to an under investment in the health service for a number of years.”

He continued: “Some of the surgeons I’m talking to are coming up with very creative responses.

“It’s about utilising every spare capacity that we have.”

The minister urged caution, however, when it comes to the demands placed on staff.

“One thing I will say – our staff will need respite and a break to move from the intense pressures that we’re seeing from Covid straight into high-pressure work to challenge waiting lists,” he said.

“I do think for their psychological well-being, for their physical well-being, we will have to look about how we factor in that bit of respite.”

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