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I thank the Labour party for bringing this debate to the House for consideration, and the way it was promoted as well, which I thought was very positive. It is helpful for everyone to be able to see the same things. I also want to put on record my thanks to all the NHS staff across the whole of the United Kingdom, but especially in Northern Ireland. Those on the frontline have worked extremely hard and long hours, faced with the coronavirus outbreak, and we owe them a great deal. I live on a farm outside Greyabbey, and at 8 o’clock on a Thursday night we could hear the clapping from three miles away down in the village by those who came out to show their appreciation. We do owe those staff a lot.
There seems to be light at the end of the covid tunnel, and I am thankful for that, but we must remember the more than 40,000 families that have been plunged into the ongoing darkness of the loss of a loved one. That must be remembered in every covid-19 debate we have in this House as a salient reminder of those who have passed away. Our thoughts and prayers remain with them all.
The recent advice in Northern Ireland has been put in a very clear way: shielding will pause at the end of July. It has been put in that way to make people aware that the war has not been won. The war will not be fully won until we have a vaccine in place for this strain and a basis in place for future mutations. I thank Queen’s University, Belfast for the sterling work that it is doing in that area.
One of the main ways to win the battle has been isolation and containment. My mother has been in self-isolation for some 14 weeks. She is 88, almost 89, and she had a chance to go and do a bit of shopping. She went mad the day she got out, and was touring round all the shops. She has a real buzz for going round the shops, and I think everyone in Newtownards must have said to themselves, “She’s back!” She was, and she did plenty of shopping.
We need to have the testing in place to move on, and that is very important. The testing has to be accurate and give us the results that we need. It is very important to have professionals who have the knowledge. It is imperative that the workforce are tested often and accurately, when we consider that 80% of UK cases are mild or asymptomatic. We must have an accurate system in place, not simply for NHS staff, but for all those around it. The Minister has spent a second day in the Chamber and we look forward to her response, which I know will be positive.
The NHS has been incredible, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that the pressure is off, because it is not. On the contrary, the pressure is most assuredly on. We have had almost four months of rescheduled operations and cancer screenings and steroid injection cancellations—all of those needs exist. It has been argued that the pressure is worse.
Covid-19 has devastated cancer services. I referred to that in two interventions on the shadow Minister earlier, so I will not ask those questions again, but as lockdown measures came into effect, urgent referrals plummeted, screening programmes were paused, many surgeries were cancelled, clinical trials were put on hold and existing health inequalities were exacerbated. The epidemic has led to a huge backlog of patients waiting for cancer services.
Cancer Research UK has said that a backlog of some 2.4 million people has developed in the first 10 weeks of lockdown. We need to address that, and I know that the Minister will address that in her response. Steps must be taken to ensure that not only NHS staff but staff in the charitable sector and in cancer care homes are tested accurately, routinely and to a high standard.
In terms of pancreatic cancer, Northern Ireland has one of the worst five-year survival rates in the world and ranks at roughly 32 out of 36 countries with comparable data, according to CONCORD-3. I dread to see—I hope I am wrong—the reality of what covid-19 has done to cancer patients, and we need to work to address that.