Ten years and £1 billion needed to fix NI’s pandemic-hit waiting list crisis, says health official

It could cost £1 billion and take 10 years to fix Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting times crisis, a senior health official has said.

Thursday, 11th March 2021, 5:02 pm
Over half of patients on NI's hospital waiting lists have been waiting more than a year

Lisa McWilliams, director of performance management at the Health and Social Care Board, also warned that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on waiting times for hospital treatment has been “profound”.

As the health service struggled to cope with the influx of coronavirus patients during the successive waves of infection over the past 12 months, staff who normally work in operating theatres were deployed elsewhere – forcing the cancellation of thousands of appointments and compounding the already lengthy waiting times.

Speaking at the Stormont health committee on Thursday, the health official told MLAs that even after the pressures from the pandemic have eased, waiting times will get worse still as the “trend” of rising demand from an ageing population continues.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

“The bottom line is that our waiting lists are too long, and are getting longer,” she said.

“We know that the way services are structured is not fit for purpose and the elective care plans roadmap for reform was outlined at our last briefing.

“However, reform will not be enough without the investment necessary to deliver it.

“Without major, sustained investment it will not be possible to return waiting times to an acceptable standard.”

She added: “In summary, addressing the waiting list backlog and reforming services to ensure future sustainability is complex and will take time.

“Multi-year funding, both recurrent to close the capacity gap and non-recurrent to address the backlog, will be required over and above what is needed for the delivery of core services.

“The required investment continues to be estimated to be in the region of £750 million to £1 billion, and it is likely to take up to 10 years to tackle this challenge.”

Ms McWilliams continued: “Prior to Covid, the trend in demand for hospital-based elective services had been increasing, influenced by the growing, ageing populaiton and with the greater prevalence of chronic health problems. This increase in demand had not been met by a corresponding increase in capacity and as a result, people were waiting longer than the target waiting times.

“This trend is expected to continue and will only be addressed if we take action to increase capacity, promote a healthier lifestyle, and tackle health inequalities.

“The impact of Covid-19 on waiting times has been profound.”