Northern Ireland

'No cash' to run Altnagelvin radiotherapy unit

Image caption The unit would have saved cancer patients long journeys for treatment

The future of a radiotherapy unit for cancer patients in the west of Northern Ireland hangs in the balance because there is no money to staff it.

Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said an £800m shortfall in the NI health budget meant the unit would be built, but there was no cash to run it.

The cuts mean 4,000 jobs in the health service could be lost over four years.

One cancer patient said the news was "disappointing" and a politician said it was "a kick in the teeth for Derry".

The cuts to the health budget mean waiting lists will get longer and patients may not be able to access the most up-to-date drugs, such as cancer medication. New buildings, like the Derry radiotherapy unit, may also lie empty.

Mr McGimpsey said there would also be a massive reduction in the number of home-care packages.

The satellite radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital had been due to open in 2015. It would have eased life for cancer patients who currently make the long trek to Belfast for treatment.

Rosaleen Helferty, who has breast cancer, said the news was a disappointment to many people.

"I can't believe that a couple of years ago they were saying the money was there and it was definitely going to be there, and we were celebrating.

"There are a lot of concerns and a lot of fears now about what's happening."

SDLP councillor Mark H Durkan said it was "a real kick in the teeth for Derry".

"This decision, if carried, will have massive ramifications on the health of people right across the island of Ireland."

The chairman of the Western Trust, Gerard Guckian, said the unit would cost £7.5m per year to run.

"We don't doubt the commitment of both the minister and the health and social care board to build the unit, but it would be absolutely disastrous if we did not get the revenue funding to actually run the building.

"This is something which is not just important for the north west and the west of the province, it is now absolutely essential and it is the right thing to do."

£800m shortfall

Overall, the health budget is short by about £800m, health officials have warned.

They said they needed £5.4bn by 2015 - instead they are to get £4.6bn - a shortfall of £800m.

The elderly and the most vulnerable will be worst hit by stringent cut plans published on Thursday.

Some of the 4,000 predicted job losses will be through natural wastage and retirement but there will be some compulsory redundancies.

Mr McGimpsey said claims by some ministers that health has been protected were bogus.

"What we have is a draft budget proposal voted through by three parties of the executive, the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party, and they are cutting the health budget," he said.

"The health budget is down by 2.4% in real terms after four years, and it still means that all of the extra demands that are coming into the system with an increased population, we're the fasting growing population in the UK, none of that is accounted for or paid for."

The health union Unison has vowed to fight the planned cutbacks and said the assembly should refuse to implement them.

Unison's Patricia McKeown said the executive must "rethink" the health budget.

"We want to see a united assembly," she said.

"We want to see people, like the health committee up at Stormont, backing what we're saying and working together, all politicians together.

"They have allowed the UK government to wipe billions off the NI block grant and it looks to me, at this point in time like they have rolled over.

"They are going to have to start doing something about that.

"They have put the health and well-being of the entire population at risk."

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