Northern Ireland outlines £700m roadmap to tackle hospital waiting lists

A sick elderly staying at a hospital

The health minister for Northern Ireland has launched a new Elective Care Framework, setting out a roadmap for tackling hospital waiting lists.

Robin Swann said he wants to “restore hope” to people waiting for hospital care in pain and discomfort, and set out an ambition to banish long wait lists by March 2026.

The Framework proposes a £700m investment over five years, which will help get more people treated as quickly as possible and fund reform to eradicate the gap between demand and capacity.

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“I realise this is a big ask at a time when there are many financial demands on our public sector. However, we should have no illusions that this is a crisis that has already dragged on far too long,” Swann said.

“The time for talk is over. What we need now is concerted action.”

This framework contains a range of short term, medium term and longer term actions.

It makes clear that the waiting list crisis has been building up for seven years and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plans detailed in this document include: implementation of “green pathways” with efforts made to keep elected care services “entirely separate” from any exposure to COVID-19; expansion of the elective care centre model with surgeries provided in ring-fenced specialist hubs; a regional NI-wide approach rather than a disjointed postcode lottery system; delivery of megaclinics for outpatient, assessment and pre-operative assessment clinics; improved data, reporting and accountability; continued focus on performance management; ongoing close cooperation with the independent sector; development of in-house HSC capacity including continued investment in staffing and use of temporary, enhanced rates for targeted shifts.

“These are just some of the examples of a suite of initiatives. It will take all these and many more to properly turn the situation around,” the Health Minister stated.

“I want long waits to have been fully banished by March 2026. The Framework sets a target for March 2026 of no patient waiting more than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment and inpatient/day case treatment; or 26 weeks for a diagnostics appointment.

“If we can bring forward this timeline we will obviously do so, but we have to acknowledge the scale of the problem that has built up and the capacity restrictions that will limit our room for manoeuvre.”

He added: “The plans include crucial and sustained investment in building up the in-house capacity of our health service.

“If we don’t eradicate the gap between demand and capacity then the backlogs in care will keep re-occurring. Up until 2014, the gap was managed through in year funding injections to facilitate additional activity. Those monies have been in shorter supply since then and waiting times have climbed relentlessly as a result.

“Investment and reform are now both required – targeted investment to get many more people treated as quickly as possible; reform to ensure the long-term problems of capacity and productivity are properly addressed.”

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Sarah Clarke

The author Sarah Clarke

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