And waiting times only going to get worse
Health Minister Robin Swann has warned there is no quick fix for Northern Ireland's health service as figures for the start of the year show over 300,000 people are waiting on an appointment to see a consultant.
He also warned figures for the current quarter will be much worse as they will include the full impact of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Mr Swann said the emphasis was on the rebuilding the health service post coronavirus and not simply restoring it to how it was.
“But, just as there was no doubt about scale of the challenge before coronavirus, equally no one can be in any doubt that a quick fix is simply not realistic," he said.
"Successfully attacking these waiting times will take time and money, and can only be achieved if additional long term funding is made available – 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. For the foreseeable future, we will have to plan around the continuing threat posed by Covid-19.
"This will severely constrain the capacity of our hospitals to scale up activity - social distancing in hospitals means reduced numbers in waiting rooms and on theatre lists."
I need to be very honest and signal that the figures for the next quarter, when published, will make even more depressing reading.Robin Swann
The Department of Health published the latest waiting time statistics for the first quarter of 2020 up to March 31, just as the coronavirus outbreak was taking a hold.
The figures show over 300,000 people - or 15% of the Northern Ireland population - were waiting for their first outpatient appointment with a consultant.
Of those almost 243,000 - or 80% of the entire waiting list - were waiting longer than nine weeks. The government target states half of all patients should wait no longer than nine weeks.
Over 117,000 were waiting more than a year.
For the quarter there was a 10% drop in the number of people seen compared to the last quarter of 2019.
There were also over 100,000 people waiting for a hospital bed for a day procedure. Of those more 71% were waiting more than the government target of half being seen within 13 weeks and 30,000 more than a year.
Waiting lists have spiraled out of control for years in Northern Ireland. In the past two decades seven major reports have recommended wide-scale reform of health service provision, the latest the Bengoa report in 2016.
It's adoption was stymied by the absence of power-sharing, however tentative measures had begun to be implemented.
Figures for the next quarter, when published, will make even more depressing reading.
Health Minister Robin Swann described the figures as “very disappointing but not unexpected”.
“No one has been in any doubt that performance in this area has been under intense pressure for some time, although steps were being taken to build capacity whilst implementing new innovative ways of working," he said.
“The onslaught of coronavirus is something that we could never have contemplated when we started the transformation of health and social care, 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.
“We have started the process of re-building our health and social care system – and it is essential that our emphasis is ‘re-building’ rather than ‘restoring’.
"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.
“For those who think or call for a return to where we were at the start of January, I simply say we cannot go there. The system was broken and struggling then so simply returning to the same place would be a disservice not just to those who are waiting but to all those who have worked so hard in the last few weeks."
The UUP MLA said there were lessons to be learned from how the health service radically transformed to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Mr Swann paid tribute to ingenuity shown by the "flexibility and wonderful" workforce.
"As I have said before, it was only their dedication and commitment that held the service together before this epidemic struck and, given what we have asked of them though the recent weeks and how they have responded, we simply cannot ask any more of them. We must change.
“Opportunities exist to transform services for the better but we need to be realistic about what is achievable in the short term.”