A growing crisis in waiting times for cancer diagnosis is costing people their lives, the Assembly has been told as the DUP’s rivals put pressure on Simon Hamilton to return as Health Minister to address the issue.
The debate, brought by the UUP, was met by silence from empty DUP benches as part of the party’s policy of largely boycotting Assembly business in the wake of the murder of Kevin McGuigan.
UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said that the NHS is now breaching a host of waiting time targets for various types of cancer – and how some of those who are not seen on time are found to have developed cancer which by that stage is harder to treat.
She told MLAs that in the Belfast Health Trust just 27 per cent of breast cancer sufferers were seen within the 14-day target.
She said that the department’s 2015-16 commissioning plan is still in draft form – despite the fact that we are now half way through the year – and that it admits that growing waiting times could lead to severely delayed diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses.
Former UUP health minister Michael McGimpsey said that delays in diagnosing cancer could be the difference between “life and death” and that waiting times across the NHS are now estimated to be the worst in 15 years.
After the debate, Mrs Dobson rounded on Mr Hamilton, who has been appointed and resigned four times in less than a month.
She said: “The selfishness of Simon Hamilton, in refusing to take part in the debate, will have galled the thousands of patients caught up in the crisis which currently exists across the local health service.
“At the very same time as the debate was taking place in the Assembly chamber, he was seen calmly walking through the upper floors at Stormont.”
Although Mr Hamilton did not respond in the chamber, he did write an article for the Belfast Telegraph in which he defended his actions.
He claimed that the other parties’ refusal to agree to an adjournment of the Assembly – which would have left Executive ministers in post as normal – “left us with no option but to resign”.
And the former finance minister said it was “nothing short of nonsense” to suggest that being away from his desk was impacting patients.
He said: “Our health and social care system runs on a day-to-day basis because of the outstanding efforts of our staff and they continue to do an excellent job caring for the people of Northern Ireland whether I am in post or not.”
Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan – who has himself battled cancer in recent times – accused the DUP of “a depraved kind of politics” by vacating the health ministry but refusing to allow any other party to take it on.
Analysis: DUP tactic only pressuring itself
When the DUP’s tactic of rolling resignations was announced almost a month ago, the aim was to make Assembly business so farcical that the Government would feel compelled to step in and suspend the Assembly, as the DUP had originally requested.
However, from the start the tactic was at best confusing and at worst could be viewed as a desperate attempt to avoid facing the electorate.
With every day that has passed since then, the DUP has built pressure – not on Sinn Fein or the Government, but on itself.
Ronald Reagan famously said “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”.
From the start of this tactic, the DUP has spent much of its airtime just attempting to clarify its actions, but even the party admits that its tactic is “ugly” and “messy”.
On Tuesday, perhaps as a result of the fact that the tactic appears to be unpopular, Simon Hamilton seemed to soften the party’s position.
Rather than what appeared to be the DUP’s previous stance – that its ministers are out of the Executive until the talks conclude – Mr Hamilton spoke of returning to his desk if there is “progress”.
That may offer a get-out clause if the pressure mounts to unsustainable levels.