Impact of COVID-19 on cancer services
COVID-19 has impacted the delivery of cancer screening and diagnostics services since March 2020.
The need for infection prevention and control measures associated with COVID-19, along with pressure on hospital services, has resulted in significant reductions in cancer activity from screening and outpatient provision through to diagnostic and surgical capacity including red flag referrals.
COVID 19 surges continue to hamper service recovery. Recurrent surges, combined with unprecedented pressures within emergency services, means healthcare staff have had to be redeployed support COVID and inpatient care, impacting surgical and outpatient capacity.
It is important that anyone who is experiencing any signs and symptoms suggestive of cancer, contact their GP. Hospital services are ready to receive and respond to referrals.
Find out more about the signs and symptoms of cancer.
It is important that anyone who has already been referred into secondary care with signs and symptoms of cancer continue to attend appointments. Likewise anyone in active treatment should continue to attend any treatment appointments. Your cancer team will continuously assess the risk / benefit of your treatment plan with you and will work to ensure that they minimise the risks associated with COVID-19.
For further advice and support on cancer and COVID, visit the Northern Ireland Cancer Network website.
Regional Cancer Reset Group
A regional Cancer Reset group has been established to oversee the COVID response within cancer and to implement the reset of the full range of cancer services whilst taking into account the need for the health and social care system to respond to further COVID-19 surges and the existing capacity constraints.
In 2020 – 2021, the group has implemented a range of measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on cancer services. These include:
- Use of telephone or remote consultations where possible;
- Provision of additional clinics within both screening and diagnostics services to enable services to address backlog resulting from pauses or downturns in service;
- Suspect and confirmed cancer patients are being prioritised against available day case and inpatient surgical capacity;
- Use of independent sector providers with a priority focus on cancer (e.g. to read scans, analyse lab results and provide outpatient, daycase and surgical care);
- The development of additional diagnostic capacity (e.g. the commissioning of 15 additional CT sessions per week);
- Changes to referral pathways so patients can be prioritised more effectively (e.g. revisions to colorectal referral pathway and the introduction of qFIT testing; changes to the referral guidance for bladder cancer);
- In line with national guidelines, changes to treatment pathways to reduce the need for hospital visits and as a consequence the risk of infection (e.g. using an alternative chemotherapy regimen);
- The establishment of an elective centre at Lagan Valley Hospital to increase capacity for day case procedures;
- Additional investment in staffing within oncology and haematology services in order to try to create greater resilience within services.
- Working with PHA to rerun the Be Cancer Aware campaign via community pharmacies
A three year Cancer Recovery Plan has also been developed which outlines some of the key actions that need to be taken over the next three years not just to rebuild cancer services but to build back better.
Cancer Recovery Plan 2021/22 – 23/24 | Department of Health (health-ni.gov.uk)
As part of the rebuild work, a Regional Surgical Prioritisation Oversight Group has also been developed. The group meets weekly to ensure that surgical patients are prioritised in the same way across Trusts. Trusts are working together in order to offer the earliest available appointment to a patient requiring diagnostics or surgery.