A three-year blueprint for rebuilding cancer care in Northern Ireland has today been published by Health Minister Robin Swann.

The recovery plan sets out a series of short and medium term initiatives to enhance services badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department is currently finalising a 10-year Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland.  The plan published today also reflects the central aims of this longer-term strategy and will focus on the initial three year period – from now until 2024.

The Health Minister stated: “Similar to countries right across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on health and social care services in Northern Ireland. Despite the best efforts of the HSC system and clinicians to protect the most important services, unfortunately it wasn’t always possible.   This recovery plan sets out the immediate steps needed to begin repairing the damage and building better services for the future.

“Restoring and stabilising cancer services has been a particular priority for my Department. Whilst there is still much work to do, good progress has already been made in some areas. We are now providing more breast screening sessions than we were before the pandemic, more CT sessions per week have been commissioned and we are constantly better utilising surgical and diagnostic capacity right across the system.  

“It must be recognised, however, that Northern Ireland had significant and entirely unacceptable waiting times and deeply embedded workforce challenges long before the pandemic. Services have increasingly struggled to keep up with growing demand for cancer care.

“These problems have been long in the making but I firmly believe the 10-year Cancer Strategy will offer us the opportunity to place Northern Ireland at the forefront of world class cancer prevention, treatment and patient experience.

“That is my ambition and I regard today’s recovery plan as an essential building block towards that objective. Today’s report states that £108 million of additional investment will be required to deliver its measures. There are some overlaps with the funding that has been identified as necessary to implement the Elective Care Framework.”

Published by the Minister last week, the Elective Care Framework spells out detailed proposals to deal with hospital waiting lists, including waiting times for cancer treatment.

Two key principles will underpin the approach to cancer related waiting times.

Firstly, care will be delivered on the basis of clinical priority rather than order of waiting.  For cancer surgery, clinical prioritisation will take place on the basis of Federation of Surgical Speciality Associations guidance. A Regional Prioritisation Oversight Group has been established to ensure that the available surgical resource is optimised.  Additional surgical capacity will also be provided through the independent sector and via other UK and RoI providers.  This will mean that some patients will have to travel for treatment.

The second principle is equality of waiting across Northern Ireland, ensuring each cancer patient has the same opportunity to receive the same high-level of diagnostic, treatment and care available, no matter where they may live. 

Objectives detailed in the cancer recovery plan include:

  • ensuring all patients living with cancer feel supported across their pathway and have access to a Clinical Nurse Specialist, appropriate psychological support, information and signposting to other services.
  • increasing screening capacity to address backlogs that have been created as a consequence of the impact of COVID-19 on screening and diagnostic and treatment services and to plan for the introduction of primary HPV testing into the NI Cervical Screening Programme in 2022/23.
  • addressing the pandemic impact on cancer referrals through the delivery of a formal public awareness campaign encouraging people to consult their GP with signs and symptoms of cancer.
  • investing in cancer services and enabling new, more sustainable, models of care that will be resilient to potential future surges of COVID-19 and to the projected increase in cases of cancer. This will include developing sustainable, high-quality services in the fields of imaging, pathology, colposcopy and endoscopy.
  • adopting a regional approach for Northern Ireland, where appropriate, to ensure patients receive equitable access to diagnostics, care, treatment and support.
  • creating smoother and more efficient patient pathways from initial referral, through diagnosis and treatment encompassing the appropriate care and support during and after treatment with the aim of improving cancer waiting time and patient outcomes and patient experience.

Although cancer survival in Northern Ireland has improved over the years, it still lags behind other comparable countries both in Europe and internationally. Early diagnosis is vital if we are to improve cancer outcomes.

There is a clear need to take action to recover our referral rates and to do what we can to smooth referral pathways so that we can support more timely care.


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