Cancer patients in Northern Ireland are depending on the establishment of an Executive after the May Assembly elections, a leading charity has said.
Barbara Roulston from Cancer Research UK was speaking as an ambitious new cancer strategy was launched, which will lead to better treatments, quicker diagnoses and lives saved.
Cancer has accounted for over 20% of all deaths in Northern Ireland every year since 1987. In 2018 – the most recent year for which detailed statistics are available - cancer was the leading cause of death, accounting for 28% of all deaths.
A new cancer strategy was a key commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but was stalled due to the pandemic.
Now, while the long-awaited document has finally been published, its future is already hanging in the balance due to political instability at Stormont.
Ms Roulston said: “We did have funding for this strategy before the collapse of the Executive, but we’re now back in the position where we need a commitment that it will be fully funded.
“We very much hope that a new Executive will be formed after the election because cancer patients are depending on it. We must remember that cancer is still the biggest killer in Northern Ireland. This strategy will save lives but funding is the nub of the issue now.”
According to the strategy document, it will cost £145m per year for it be fully implemented over the next 10 years, with a further £73m of capital investment over the coming decade.
The first year will cost £2.3m, rising to just under £146m by the 10th year.
The document has warned: “As we move forward, it is also important to acknowledge the difficult financial context in which this strategy is being issued.
“At the time of publication, all actions are subject to confirmation of funding and will therefore require prioritisation, workforce mapping and planning to ensure realistic delivery. The investment required to deliver the strategy is significant, and is in addition to the existing expenditure in cancer services.
“It is not possible to fund implementation from within the department’s existing resources and delivery is therefore dependent on the provisions of significant additional funding for the department.
“Where it is possible, the department will also seek to release resources through service efficiencies and reconfigurations; however, this in itself will not be sufficient to fund implementation.
“The pace of change outlined in this strategy will also be considered in the context of other service priorities and with regard to the department’s overall financial settlements.”
It is understood there is sufficient funding in place to launch the strategy but the lack of a multi-year budget – as a result of the absence of an Executive – means it will be more difficult to implement the blueprint in full in subsequent years.
The strategy has made 60 high-level recommendations, looking at preventing cancers in the first place to increasing the NHS workforce and improving access to diagnostic tests.
Other recommendations include a proposal that all cancer patients, including children and young people, will have access to a clinical nurse specialist throughout their journey, and that more people will be able to access clinical trials.
Work is already underway to develop two prototype rapid diagnostic centres which will serve patients across Northern Ireland.
Whiteabbey Hospital in Newtownabbey and South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon have been earmarked as the locations for the centres and it is hoped they will welcome their first patients later this year.
The idea behind the facilities is that they will provide a one-stop diagnostic service which will enable patients, who have non-specific but concerning symptoms, to begin treatment more quickly and also reduce the need for repeat appointments and investigations.
Health Minister Robin Swann has also asked his officials to improve access to phlebotomy services so patients don’t have to travel as far for the service. It is hoped it will be up and running by the end of March next year.
Releasing the strategy, Mr Swann said: “Unfortunately, cancer will impact on all our lives at some point either directly or indirectly.
“Therefore the central vision of the new strategy is to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland, wherever they live, has equitable and timely access to the most effective, evidence-based referral, diagnosis, treatment, support and person-centred cancer care.
“Regrettably, cancer services were challenged before the pandemic and there continues to be significant capacity and workforce challenges across a range of areas.
“Therefore, there is a need to move forward urgently to implement the actions outlined in this strategy to rebuild and transform our services in the short, medium and longer term.”