New Northern Ireland cancer strategy will be left to gather dust without Health Minister

Richard Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly
Richard Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly

Richard Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly

Victoria Leonard

A new cancer strategy for Northern Ireland has been welcomed by charities – even though a Health Minister minister needs to be in place to decide how it will be implemented.

The local cancer strategy was last updated in 2008.

Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said: “Significant progress has been made over the past 20 years in developing cancer services in Northern Ireland.

“This has involved investing in a wide range of preventative, treatment and care programmes that have contributed to improvements in survival rates for cancer patients.

“However, the anticipated demographic change in forthcoming years means there is likely to be a significant growth in demand for cancer services, and we must prepare for these challenges.

“A new strategy would help us do that.”

In an announcement yesterday, the Department of Health said: “The central goal of the new strategy will be to identify new ways of working to secure further advances across cancer care.”

It said that it will work with patients, staff and cancer charities to develop the strategy, adding that it sees merit in the model used by NHS England to support the development of its cancer strategy.

The department added: “This involved the establishment of an independent cancer taskforce which worked closely with professional cancer services staff, patients, cancer charities, commissioners, care providers and other key stakeholder groups.

“Discussions are planned with local cancer charity representatives on the commissioning of the strategy and the potential development of a taskforce model.

“Decisions on the implementation of a new strategy would be for a future Health Minister.”

Head of services for Macmillan here, Heather Monteverde, said it was delighted to support the department to progress a cancer strategy and was looking forward to a meeting later this month about the potential development of a taskforce model.

“Macmillan has been calling for a cancer strategy for many years and we acknowledge the department’s willingness to build on the learning and insight gained from other locations, in particular NHS England,” she added.

“We are keen to work with the department towards a cancer strategy that recognises our unique Northern Ireland context and will translate into the world-class cancer, patient-centred care that people living here deserve.”

Marie Curie head of policy and public affairs Joan McEwan said that cancer was still the leading cause of death here and it was critical that local patients with a terminal cancer diagnosis were able to access timely and holistic care and support at the end of life.

“We hope the new cancer strategy will provide an opportunity for statutory and voluntary sector service providers to work even more closely together to make this a reality for as many people living and dying with cancer as possible,” she said.

Chief executive of Cancer Focus NI Roisin Foster said her organisation and others had been campaigning for a new cancer strategy for some time.

“Our last strategy was published 10 years ago and figures from the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry predict incidences of the disease here will rise by almost two-thirds by 2035,” she said.

“We also welcome the setting up of an independent taskforce.

“The world of cancer is ever-changing and we need a cancer strategy now so that we can join up every aspect of cancer treatment and research, from prevention, earlier diagnosis, finding better treatments to delivering palliative care, and ensure that caring for people with cancer is central to the overall transformation of health and social care.”

Cancer Research UK’s Margaret Carr said the news was tremendously welcome, and described the current strategy as “hugely out-of-date”.

“This is a major step forward for cancer patients as we know from other parts of the UK and Ireland that focused strategies can help target finite resources effectively and drive vital service improvements for patients,” she said.

“We look forward to working with the Department of Health to ensure that a new strategy will help prevent more cancers, diagnose more cancers earlier, provide patients with the right treatment for their disease in the right place and ensure that research is at the heart of cancer treatment.

“We will continue our work to ensure that a new strategy has measurable actions implemented within agreed time scales.”

Heather Blake, director of support and influencing at Prostate Cancer UK, said: “An ambitious, overarching plan for cancer will play an essential role in improving the outcomes and experiences of men affected by prostate cancer, as well as ensuring that workforce and service provision is scaled up to cope with the increasing number of men diagnosed.

“We are ready and willing to join the independent taskforce and champion the needs of men with prostate cancer throughout the development process.

“In the meantime, we want to see a clear timeline agreed for completion.

“The sooner the strategy is developed, the sooner we can roll out improvements for men and save more lives.”

Ulster Unoinist Party health spokesman Roy Beggs welcomed the announcement, but warned that the absence of a Health Minister would cause delays in getting it implemented.

“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,” he pointed out.

“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.”

He urged Secretary of State Karen Bradley immediately introduce direct rule if local ministers cannot be appointed.

He added: “At least then this new strategy may have a chance of actually helping people.”

Case Study

A Bangor cancer survivor has said the new cancer strategy would help improve patients’ quality of life and ease strain on the public purse.

Founder of the NI Cancer Advocacy Movement, Melanie Kennedy (41) was diagnosed with incurable secondary breast cancer in 2014. But following treatment she was told she now showed no evidence of active disease.

The mum-of -two said the announcement that a cancer strategy is to be commissioned represents “a step forward but we’re not there yet”.

“We are going into a world where cancer will become more of a long-term chronic, liveable condition,” she said.

“I have outlived my prognosis by quite some way. I’m living proof that if you get the right treatment at the right time you can survive and it can save money.

“A cancer strategy would be good for patients’ quality of life and for the Department of Health’s purse-strings.

“But I find it extremely concerning that there is no sign of politicians going back to Stormont. It’s a concern not just for cancer patients, but for all patients in Northern Ireland who don’t know what the future holds.”

Belfast Telegraph

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