Elected representatives across Northern Ireland have commended the Department of Health’s announcement of a plan for a new cancer strategy for the region- but warned the move was long overdue.
The strategy will bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom and aims to identify new ways of securing advancements to cancer care by working with patients, staff and cancer charities.
Announcing the news, DoH Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly said any finalised strategy would require ministerial approval.
Alliance Health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw MLA welcomed the announcement but stressed that it has been a long time coming.
“Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland lacking a cancer strategy and we are still in all likelihood at least a year away from one even being consulted upon,” she commented.
“Cancer patients, who have already been warned treatment will be delayed because of treatment, are also the victims of the failure of the devolved institutions. We need to get a lot more urgency into the priority issues such as developing strategies to ensure our cancer services improve and treatments are more efficient.”
The Ulster Unionists have also expressed worry at the ongoing absence of a Health Minister for Northern Ireland which may cause “further avoidable delays”.
Roy Beggs, MLA for east Antrim, commented: “It is shameful that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have a cancer strategy.
“Targets are set for cancer treatment because there is very sound medical evidence that the longer a patient has to wait for diagnosis or treatment, the greater the risk that they may ultimately come to harm. That’s what makes the fact that Northern Ireland is missing so many of its key cancer targets so serious and inexcusable.
“It’s also a disease that is increasing rapidly- 1 in 2 people across Northern Ireland born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. That is a shocking statistic and, whilst much later than I would have liked, it is why I very much welcome that at last we are now moving towards developing a new cancer strategy.
“Unfortunately however Richard Pengelly immediately deflated any positivity surrounding the announcement by saying that the implementation of the new strategy would only be for a future Health Minister to decide upon. Many will rightly even question the point of his statement in the first place when it looks almost certain that we are very unlikely to have a Minister any time soon.”
Mr Beggs also expressed dismay at the “virtually invisible” Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who appears to be unaware of the “real medical harm” many are exposed to due to the ongoing political stalemate.
“She can no longer continue to sit back and do nothing while local people suffer- if local Ministers cannot be appointed she should move immediately to introduce Direct Rule. At least then this new strategy may have a chance of actually helping people,” he concluded.
Sinn Fein’s Pat Sheehan said the decision is to be welcomed, despite its late implementation.
“Currently cancer services are facing considerable challenges in delivering services in the context of waiting time targets being routinely missed and growing pressures on the workforce,” the west Belfast MLA and party spokesperson for Health commented.
“Challenges are particularly stark in the context of Brexit with the Royal College of Radiologists recently warning that cancer treatment could be delayed. This would have a significant impact on patients relying on cancer services, and their families and carers.
“It is important that cancer services and the future strategy is co-designed and co-produced with patients, cancer charities, health and social care staff and professional bodies as well as other key stakeholders. This will be essential to ensuring a sustainable cancer service that delivers better health outcomes for patients.”
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