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Over 250,000 languishing on waiting lists as Covid wreaks havoc on hospitals

Sinn Fein MLA Gildernew calls for extra investment as new figures paint a devastating picture of Northern Ireland’s overwhelmed health service


Sinn Fein Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Colm Gildernew

Sinn Fein Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Colm Gildernew

Sinn Fein Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Colm Gildernew

More than a quarter of a million people, or one in seven of the population, were on a hospital waiting list longer than a year at the end of September.

The number of people waiting longer than 52 weeks for a first hospital appointment surged by almost 2,000 during the month, according to official figures.

A staggering 191,848 people were waiting longer than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment at the end of September — up from 189,928 at the end of August.

The number of people waiting for in-patient treatment also climbed over the same period, from 66,575 to 67,444.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Figures from the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) highlighted the toll the pandemic has had on waiting times for crucial treatment as staff were diverted to respond to the demands of managing the health crisis.

The number of people waiting longer than one year for a first hospital appointment and elective treatment surged by 23% and 45% respectively between September last year and September this year.

At beginning of the pandemic, 121,815 people were waiting longer than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment, meaning there was a 57% increase in patients waiting longer than a year by the end of September.

The number of patients on waiting lists for in-patient treatment more than doubled between the start of the pandemic and the end of September.

The much-lauded day case procedure centre, which was set up to address waiting times for the likes of cataract surgery, is also struggling.

The figures revealed that 7,311 patients referred to the centre had been waiting more than a year at the end of September.

A HSCB performance report attached to the statistics said: “The volume of activity being delivered at these sites has unfortunately reduced during the pandemic as staff have been redeployed to support critical care services.

“All trusts are struggling to maintain elective services due to the ongoing pressures associated with the pandemic, combined with increased unscheduled care pressures.

“Given the potential for the current pressures to continue throughout the winter period, the health and social care system is likely facing unprecedented challenges in the coming months.

“In the context of these challenges, a key priority will continue to be maximising elective capacity to ensure that as many patients as possible are seen and treated in an environment that is safe for both patients and staff.”

Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew said waiting lists were extremely concerning.

He added: “While it is understandable that Covid-19 pressures are adding to the burden, the continuing upward trends in waiting lists are very worrying.

“Waiting lists must be tackled, and in order for that to happen, the staffing crisis has to be addressed immediately.”

The Department of Health said services were struggling to cope with demand.

A spokeswoman added: “There continues to be significant pressures on our health and care services. This is having a sustained impact on elective capacity.

“It is unacceptable that any patient has to wait longer than is clinically appropriate for surgery.

“Waiting times were already significant before Covid-19, and with the impact of the pandemic, they have regrettably become worse.

“Tackling them will require a long-term collective effort based upon sustained and substantial investment.”

The spokeswoman added that a number of initiatives had been launched to address the crisis, including the introduction of mega-clinics, a regional retention scheme for nurses and midwives, recurrent use of the independent sector, workforce appeals, and implementation of green pathways in an effort to keep elective care services separate from exposure to Covid-19.

It emerged earlier this month that surgeons were having to work in private clinics to keep their skills up to date because of the massive downturn in elective surgery in NHS hospitals.

It was claimed a number of surgeons had performed no elective operations for the past 18 months because resources had been redirected to Covid patients and emergency operations.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that some trainee surgeons are leaving Northern Ireland to gain experience in other parts of the UK.

Earlier this week, it emerged eight intensive car nurses had resigned from their jobs in the Belfast Trust in the past fortnight, raising concerns elective surgery could be impacted as a result.

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