COVID-19 has had a severe impact on a range of key cancer services. While emergency and urgent cancer services have continued throughout the surge, unfortunately, and out of necessity to reduce the risk of infection to both patients and staff, many procedures and diagnostic appointments have had to be postponed or delayed. These decisions are not taken lightly and will undoubtedly have an impact on waiting times for cancer treatment which are likely to persist for many months.
As part of the response to COVID-19, many patients’ treatments plans have been modified to reduce the need for hospital visits and, as a consequence, the risk of infection. Examples include measures such as the provision of hormone therapy or radiotherapy as an alternative to surgery, and the use of alternative drug regimens.
When a decision is taken to delay diagnostics or modify treatment it is done so according to strictly observed and regionally agreed NICaN guidelines and on the basis of an individual assessment of risk / benefit.
Trusts have put in place safety netting processes to ensure that any patients who has had a treatment paused or delayed resumes treatment on the appropriate pathway as soon as it is safe and possible to do so. Cancer waiting times guidance has been updated to reflect any changes to treatment pathways.
Work has now started to implement the reset of the full range of cancer services whilst taking into account the need for the HSC to respond to further COVID-19 surge(s) in 2020 and the existing capacity constraints in HSC. This work will be taken forward by the COVID-19 Regional Cancer Reset Cell.
As part of the rebuilding programme, all patients across Northern Ireland will be prioritised in the same way and Trusts will be expected to work together in order to offer the earliest available appointment to a patient requiring diagnostics or surgery.
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. Likewise it is important that anyone who has already been referred into secondary care with signs and symptoms of cancer attends appointments.
For anyone in active treatment, please 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.