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Surgeons call for NI roadmap to tackle ‘devastating’ waiting times

25 Feb 2021

Following publication today of ‘devastating’ new waiting time figures, leading surgeons have called on the NI government to provide a detailed roadmap on how the backlog of both urgent and non-urgent operations will be addressed.

Northern Ireland’s mammoth waiting lists were published today (Thursday 25 Feb 2021) via the Department of Health’s quarterly statistics, reflecting October to December 2020. 

They show nearly 168,000 patients (167,806 people) were waiting more than 52 weeks for their first consultant-led outpatient appointment at the end of the year - an increase of more than 10,000 on the previous quarter (figures for June to September 2020 reported 155,497 people waiting more than 52 weeks). Around a third of patients waiting over 52 weeks were in three specialties; ENT, General Surgery or Dermatology.

In total 323,174 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for their first outpatient appointment with a consultant. 

Although surgeons and health teams have worked to deliver life-saving surgery, a great deal of life-changing surgery has been put on hold during the COVID pandemic.

Mr Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Surgeons of England described the figures as devastating. He said,

‘The Health Minister has said himself that our waiting times were unacceptable before Covid, and regrettably will be worse after it. Although some outpatient appointments continued in the last quarter, overall these figures are devastating.

‘Before Covid-19, NI had a struggling healthcare system. Patients were waiting years to access life-changing surgery. Covid-19 has exacerbated that situation and made it much worse. 

‘Having switched off many surgical services to focus on the urgent health needs of people presenting with COVID, it has proved very difficult to switch surgery back on. Surgical services across our five health Trusts remain well below capacity. We need a roadmap from the government to avoid a postcode lottery of patient care. A roadmap that embraces innovative ways of delivering the treatments patients need so desperately.’

Since last year, surgeons have been calling for the creation of separate ‘COVID-light’ facilities in Northern Ireland so that planned surgery can keep going through this pandemic. 

The Health Minister has supported this approach and asked Trusts to identify ‘Covid-light’ sites to enable the rapid reactivation of surgical services. Last month the College welcomed Department of Health plans to instigate a regional approach towards surgery that would involve patients and staff travelling to wherever space, staff and equipment were available.

Speaking about the way forward Mr Mark Taylor added:

‘It is of the utmost importance that we look at a long term strategy to transform our health service, whilst we continue to work on the significant surgical backlog. This will require a ‘protected long term budget’. 

‘The health service needs sustained investment in staff, theatre space and hospital beds.  We also need to use the independent sector more, rather than keep patients waiting for years.  

‘Whilst we must get more surgery back up and running again, staff who have been re-deployed to manage COVID are in need of a break.  Team work, and flexibility will be essential so that staff do not get completely burnt out. They have been in the midst of this COVID-19 battle for the last 12 months, and they have been amazing.

‘COVID-19 is not going to disappear from our society soon, and it is very likely waiting lists for planned surgery will increase as we continue to deal with further outbreaks. But we want to slow this growth in the waiting lists, and give patients hope and assurance they will be seen. Surgeons are committed to working in new ways, but they need the support of government in the form of a detailed and costed roadmap. Patients shouldn’t and can’t wait any longer.’


Notes to editors

1. Department of Health figures are available here: 

2. The 2020-21 ministerial target for outpatient waiting times, states that by March 2021 at least 50% of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment, with no patient waiting longer than 52 weeks

3. The College's response to the Department of Health Regional Prioritisation approach (Jan 2021)

4. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is represented in Northern Ireland by a Professional Board, comprising 10 elected specialty surgeons, a member elected by the Association of Surgeons in Training (ASiT), the Chair of QUB Medical School Surgical Society, the Head of the School of Surgery and an RCS Council member. The purpose of the Board is to improve surgical outcomes for patients, advocate locally and support the dissemination of good practice and professional guidance.

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