400,000 stuck on NHS waiting lists in Northern Ireland
SDLP and UUP slam Health Minister as figures hit highest level in 15 years
Almost 400,000 people are waiting for their first outpatient appointment, diagnostic test or inpatient treatment, shocking new figures have revealed.
The escalating waiting list crisis has been branded "simply unacceptable", with queues now at their longest in 15 years.
More than one in five of the population here is on a form of outpatient waiting list.
Official figures show an increase of nearly 37% in 12 months.
In December 2014, 171,866 people faced a delay - but 12 months later this had jumped to 236,365 people.
The number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for a first outpatient appointment has also risen by more than 50%. Between 2014 and the following December, the figure soared from 48,579 to 122,771.
There were 33,555 patients waiting longer than the target of nine weeks at the end of December 2015 - 30.1% more than the number waiting at the end of December 2014 (25,787).
SDLP health spokesman Fearghal McKinney MLA described the situation as shocking.
"The figures speak for themselves and the human stories behind them are sometimes horrendous," he said.
"We have many people contacting my constituency office, especially the elderly, who are waiting too long for treatments such as hip operations and cataract operations.
"Sight and mobility are things we take for granted and the waiting lists for these treatments are simply unacceptable."
Mr McKinney also hit out at the DUP leadership of the Department of Health.
"Under DUP stewardship, waiting lists for treatment are at their longest in 15 years," he said.
"The health service is at breaking point. Patients and staff are suffering on the frontline and it is the responsibility of the Health Minister to take action to mitigate that. I do not see any indication that any DUP ministers have taken adequate action to deal with this continuing crisis.
Ulster Unionist Party health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson added: "With almost 400,000 people, over one in five of our total population, now lingering on a hospital waiting list, this is the biggest health crisis any Executive has experienced since devolution was restored. In terms of sheer impact, it is undoubtedly the biggest and most acutely felt failure of the current Executive."
In November Health Minister Simon Hamilton said he planned to use £40m given to his department in the last reallocation of funds to tackle waiting lists.
Mr Hamilton said improving waiting times continued to be one of his key priorities.
"The additional £40m I have invested over the last couple of months will start the slow journey of restoring our waiting times to where they had been prior to the welfare reform debacle," he added.
Yesterday, he claimed that the journey to restore waiting times was under way.
"Improving waiting times continues to be one of my key priorities and the vast majority of additional resources made available by the executive in November are going directly towards tackling waiting times," he said.
"This is expected to benefit some 60,000 to 70,000 patients who would otherwise be waiting for assessments, diagnostics and treatments, and is not yet reflected in December figures but will impact on the next set of official statistics.
"This is just a start. Much more additional funding will be needed to get us back to where we previously were, but we are now going in the right direction and I trust patients will see the benefit of this as we move through the final quarter of 2015/16."
Increase between 2014 and 2015 in number of people waiting for help