MLAs hit out at issues around breast cancer waiting times and GP contracts
North Antrim Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann has expressed major concerns over “the deterioration in the waiting times for suspected breast cancer across the Northern Health Trust area” while East Londonderry independent MLA Claire Sugden spoke of her alarm that the two Health and Social Trusts where the most GP surgeries handed back their contracts in 2023 were both in her constituency.
The former Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Cancer is a disease that cruelly thrives during a period of vacuum. The sooner it is detected and treatment begins, the better the chance patients have of a successful and positive outcome. That is why targets are in place and why it’s so important that delays are avoided.
“The revelation however that only 7% of suspected breast cancer referrals within the Northern Trust area were seen within 14 days in September, against the target of 100%, is hugely concerning.
“Whilst the Northern Trust has historically received more referrals than other Trust areas and has suffered from regular changes within its small staff teams, there can be no excuse for what had recently been a success story collapsing so significantly and so quickly.
“It’s my understanding that part of the reason for the huge deterioration locally is that support which the Northern Trust had been receiving from another Trust area, has now in recent weeks ceased due to other pressures across the region.
“Unfortunately however, the subsequent collapse of the Executive, and the absence of any Ministers for over a year now has seen progress fall away and as a result women in the Northern Trust are left facing the consequences and paying the price for the turmoil gripping the broader health and social care system here.”
Meanwhile, Ms Sugden highlighted the fact that in the Northern Trust, six GP contracts were handed back, while in the Western Trust, four were handed back, with a further one in 2022.
“When I wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the DoH in June, I was told that, of the 16 ‘at-risk’ surgeries over 2022/23 and 2023/24, 10 had found new contractors, while work was ‘ongoing’ in finding replacement GPs to take on the six further practises,” said the independent MLA.
“At this stage, only three had handed their contracts back since April 2023. The figure for the whole of 2023 is now at 14, not to mention those from previous years. Eighteen surgeries handed back their contracts since 2021.
“GPs are finding it increasingly difficult, financially, pressure-wise and working with the difficult practicalities of running surgeries. Many are suffering from ‘burn-out’ and many are retiring early, often as a result. The pool of available GPs available and willing to take on practises is clearly limited, so I have written again for an update on the situation – particularly in the Northern and Western Trust areas.
"The absence of Stormont and the crippling budget brought in by the Secretary of State are exacerbating the situation. The domino effect of losing GPs then creates more pressure across the health service cannot continue.”