Minister ‘committed’ to cancer centre

Stormont health minister Michael McGimpsey has said he is “absolutely committed” to delivering a satellite radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’ this week, Mr McGimpsey described himself as a “champion” for the plans to develop the long-awaited service to Derry by 2015.

The minister’s comments come amid growing concern over the future of the cancer centre, which will be used by patients from Derry, Donegal, and Tyrone when it is completed.

Concerns arose a number of weeks ago when the minister warned that while money is in place to build the state-of-the-art facility, there may not be enough money to staff and equip it.

His warning sparked anger among cancer support groups on both sides of the border and local politicians who have been lobbying for the radiotherapy unit to be built in the North West. In an unusual step, all six Assembly members for the Foyle constituency put aside their party political differences last month to issue a joint statement calling on the minister to honour his commitment to build and run the cancer centre.

A public meeting was also held in the city last week which was addressed by politicians from Donegal and Derry.

Mr McGimpsey said this week that he is “determined” to honour his commitment on the cancer centre but is being constrained by budget cuts.

“I am committed to Altnagelvin,” he said. “I have four main capital priorities; the Ulster Hospital’s new block, the maternity unity at the Royal hospital, the Omagh local hospital and the Altnagelvin radiotherapy unit. Those are my four main projects for the next four years,” he added.

The minister explained: “There is a one billion deficit in my capital budget and that is a real cause for concern. The issue is it takes £8 million running it and there is no money to run it. We have to recruit and train staff, including staff with specialist skills. We have to equip it also. That process has to start now. We can’t wait four years.”

The Ulster Unionist said he has worked on the project for four years and intends to see it to fruition. “I have been a champion of this for four years. In that time I have worked with Mary Harney, when she was minister for health, in order to take this forward. I have been determined to get this built.

‘Met capacity’

“I am absolutely committed to Altnagelvin because we need it by 2015/6, we will have met capacity and the demand for cancer services will continue to grow in that time. But we have to be prepared to pay,” he said.

Mr McGimpsey also claimed some politicians are making political gains out of the issue. “A lot of the concern has been stoked up for political reasons. Those who are complaining need to stop being hypocritical and put their hands up for the health service. It is up to the parties to stop playing games over health.

“If we had health protected similar to Scotland and England we would have a fighting chance. It is disingenuous and even dishonest to say this is my fault. The DUP and Sinn Féin wanted to cut the health budget,” he said.

Meanwhile, UUP deputy leader John McCallister has given his support to the campaign to have the satellite radiotherapy unit built in Derry.