Waiting list figures will get much worse because of the coronavirus pandemic, Stormont health minster Robin Swann has warned.
Almost four-fifths of patients were waiting more than nine weeks for a first appointment with a consultant at the end of March, official statistics in Northern Ireland said.
The number had increased slightly since last year, with a target set at 50%.
Mr Swann said: “The waiting lists today are bad. The next quarter’s are going to be worse.
“That is when we will see the real measure of what has happened during the last couple of months of Covid.”
He said performance had been under pressure for some time and would get worse until “serious steps” were taken.
“The onslaught of coronavirus is something that we could never have contemplated when we started the transformation of health and social care,” he said. “And the truth is that today’s statistics only cover the position to the end of March, so simply provide an early indication of the full impact of the virus on waiting times.
“I need to be very honest and signal that the figures for the next quarter, when published, will make even more depressing reading.”
Health Minister Robin Swann has described the latest waiting time statistics as âvery disappointing but not unexpectedâ.— Department of Health (@healthdpt) May 28, 2020
Almost four-fifths (79.1%, 242,864) of patients were waiting more than nine weeks for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment, compared with 78.4% (239,130) on December 31 and 74% (213,708) on March 31 last year, Department of Health statistics revealed.
Mr Swann said a quick fix was not a realistic expectation.
“Successfully attacking these waiting times will take time and money, and can only be achieved if additional long-term funding is made available,” he said.
“Such funding must be over and above that needed to run existing services. I have been very clear on this point since taking up post.
“Even with significant additional investment, the task of putting this right will be immensely challenging.”
The truth is that our health service will never be the same again – the challenge for us is to make that reality an opportunity rather than a threatRobin Swann
He said for the foreseeable future the NHS will have to plan around the continuing threat posed by Covid-19.
Social distancing in hospitals means reduced numbers in waiting rooms and on theatre lists.
The minister added: “The truth is that our health service will never be the same again – the challenge for us is to make that reality an opportunity rather than a threat.
“The way we use services will have to change and innovations like virtual clinics will increasingly become the norm.”
The coronavirus pandemic requires more innovative ways in how the health and social care service operates if we are to clear the waiting list backlog, Northern Ireland’s doctors’ leader said.
Dr Tom Black, chair of BMA’s Northern Ireland Council, said: “Doctors have embraced new ways of working very quickly as part of the pandemic response.
“We need to make sure that as the first phase is brought under control that any additional work is planned agreed and resourced.
“Doctors need to be properly included in any reform of the health service that now must cope with treating Covid-19 patients, whilst resuming care put on hold for those with other health conditions.”