Waiting lists down after £70m boost, 'but still too high'
Soaring waiting times for thousands of patients have reduced slightly after a £70m injection, but figures reveal they remain "frighteningly high" compared to a year ago, says the SDLP.
By the end of December more than one in five of Northern Ireland's population was on a form of outpatient waiting list.
In December 2014, 171,866 people faced a delay, but 12 months later it was 236,365 people.
There were 33,555 patients waiting longer than the target of nine weeks - 30.1% more than the number waiting at the end of December 2014 (25,787).
And in December last year a total of 235,365 were on the list for a first appointment.
After the funding boost, this dropped to 232, 992 the following month.
At the end of February those waiting more than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment had fallen by over 14,000 and those waiting over 18 weeks by over 11,000, or around 9%.
The current number of patients waiting for a first outpatient appointment is 205,119. However, a year before, it was 180,751.
Health Minister Simon Hamilton welcomed the new figures but said "there is more to come".
The minister said the investment started in November 2015 was beginning to "bring real change in reducing the length of time people have had to wait".
"Most people will be seen during January to March so the full extent will not be clear until early 2016/17," he added.
"A combined total of £70m is being allocated to ensure in the region of 150,000 extra assessments, tests and procedures will be completed. Further change will take time and significant non-recurrent and recurrent investment to bring waiting times back to an acceptable level."
Mr Hamilton, who has faced fierce criticism from opponents, added: "Our waiting lists are too long but reducing them is a key priority for me. These figures are evidence that our investment is working and I look forward to further positive progress."
However, SDLP health spokesman Fearghal McKinney said the system needed more than a financial boost.
"Any improvement is welcome but Simon Hamilton finds himself managing crisis after crisis, some of his own making," he added,
"People are expected to be jubilant about this. He needs a real long-term plan for the system. He has just thrown money at a problem that he is not actually solving. The lists are still frighteningly high.
"He really has to get a handle on long-term strategy, and workforce planning is at the heart of it, and understanding the issues is at the heart of it."
"The amount of money spent on temporary staff is a shame and has to be stopped, and the minister has to look at his long-term strategy and workforce issues."