How long will we tolerate ‘appalling’ waiting times in Northern Ireland, asks cancer charity

A local cancer charity has said it is “dismayed” at the “repeated failure” to hit cancer waiting time targets in Northern Ireland.#

Another charity, meanwhile, questioned how long the public will be prepared to put up with such “appalling” waiting times.

The chief executive of Cancer Focus NI and the policy manager for Macmillan in Northern Ireland were speaking after the latest figures published by the Department of Health at Stormont showed less than half of patients started treatment within two months of an urgent referral for suspect cancer in Northern Ireland during March.

The figures show that In March 2022, 414 patients commenced their first treatment for cancer following an urgent referral for suspect cancer. Of these, 48.1% (199 patients) started treatment within 62 days, compared with 41.2% (175 of the 425 patients) in February, 33.8% (142 of the 420 patients) in January and 49.2% (216 of the 439 patients) in March 2021.

Generic Photo of a Middle Aged Woman Getting a Mammogram. Picture credit: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos.

Richard Spratt, Cancer Focus NI CEO said: “Once again, we are dismayed at this repeated failure to meet the Department’s own waiting time targets. These statistics represent real people. Waiting for a diagnostic test or treatment, can be devastating – we hear of the impact every day as we continue to support local patients and their families through their cancer journey.”

He continued: “The ongoing collapse of the Stormont Executive has created unnecessary worry around the long-term budgetary planning necessary to implement the new Cancer Strategy. Cancer Focus NI expects an urgent commitment from all Ministers to guarantee recurring funding to deliver the Strategy’s recommendations immediately. This was our key ask for our politicians at the recent Assembly elections and the public need and demand delivery.”

Mr Spratt added: “We welcome the Minister’s recent announcement to address waiting lists for the first six months of 2022/23. We believe that if properly resourced it can go some of the way to alleviate the backlog. However, more importantly, we urgently need a clear plan for sustained funding of the new Cancer Strategy. This must include significant improvements in capacity to meet workforce challenges. Local people deserve and expect better from our political leaders.”

Sarah Christie, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for Macmillan in Northern Ireland said: “For how much longer are people in Northern Ireland expected to tolerate these appalling waiting times? We have a visionary new Cancer Strategy for NI waiting to be implemented which has the potential to improve the lives of everyone living with cancer. But without an Executive, we have no budget, no investment and no political leadership.

People are being let down time and time again by their political representatives. The health system is falling apart, despite the best efforts of our hardworking healthcare professionals, and our recent Cancer Workforce in Northern Ireland census highlights the challenges facing an invaluable workforce that is under extreme pressure. We are at a critical point in time — we need an Executive now to deliver the multi-year funding needed for the Strategy.”

The figures also showed that during March 2022, 1,376 patients were seen by a breast cancer specialist for a first assessment following an urgent referral for suspect breast cancer. Of these, 43.6% (600) were seen within 14 days, compared with 54.3% (666 of the 1,226 patients) in February, 55.1% (692 of the 1,255 patients) in January and 33.2% (508 of the 1,530 patients) in March 2021.