‘Cancer services haven’t caught up with COVID - it’s been a challenge’

The continued delivery of cancer services during the COVID-19 pandemic has been ‘very challenging’ with the system playing catch-up since the first lockdown, a senior Derry health manager has said.

Paul Cavanagh, Interim Director of Planning & Commissioning at the Health & Social Care Board, told the Stormont Health Committee that the lockdown periods have been extremely difficult despite the heroic efforts of staff.

“It has been very challenging. The last two years have been very challenging for all of our services as we all know.

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“I actually meet fortnightly with cancer managers and lead cancer clinicians and what we call the cancer recovery cell so I’m very well aware of the pressures that we’ve had.

Paul Cavanagh, Interim Director of Planning & Commissioning at the Health & Social Care Board.

“The first sort of lockdown period - that early part of 2020 - really we lost a lot at that stage. It set us back considerably and we’ve been trying to recover ever since in the knowledge that more people come forward requiring treatment,” said the Derry-born health manager.

Mr. Cavanagh said diagnostics as well as radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments have continued thanks to the heroic efforts of staff, however, surgery has suffered.

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“Our diagnostics have largely stayed on their feet but not without a lot of really heroic effort, as you can imagine. Our chemotherapy services have also really managed to keep going through the period but again have been very stretched. We’ve had a lot of vacancies in that space with doctors and nurses but we’ve managed to keep chemotherapy going with radiotherapy,” he said.

He told MLAs cancer services have been playing catch-up since the first lockdown.

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“The first year set us back considerably and we’ve been recovering ever since. We are spending, at the moment, some £90m in-year additional monies on surgery and on out patients that relates to surgery and so on. There is hardly a bit of additional capacity within our Trusts or within the independent sector that we are not currently using to catch-up with ourselves.

“We have had to prioritise surgery so those cancers, those urgent surgeries, are our highest priority so they are being prioritised but we are still behind in those and we are trying to catch-up consistently. We are probably able to do about 400 surgeries per week at the moment but we need to reach about 1,200 of those very urgent cancer surgeries at this stage so as you can see we are always behind. We have not caught up. COVID continues to still have an impact on us.”