T2. Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, after acknowledging the Minister's indication that health-check vans are back at marts, which is very welcome, given that many farmers welcomed the announcement on the vans because of difficulties accessing GP services, to outline his plans to develop or even enhance the service. (AQT 692/17-22)
That service has been run between the Department and the Public Health Agency (PHA). There are significant benefits to having the vans there at the current time. Appropriate arrangements are being made to ensure the safety of both staff and users. One of the things that the vans are there to help with is people's mental health. They do physical checks, but they also have conversations around mental health.
We all know that mental health is a significant issue in rural areas. Over the period of COVID, there has been a substantial deterioration in mental health across the country generally, and particularly for people who are more isolated. As a consequence of that isolation, those people have less and less opportunity to interact and engage with other human beings face to face. It has particularly impacted on our older population, and many of our farmers and users of the service are from among the older population.
We therefore really need to ensure that the services that we provide go way beyond just looking at COVID. We still need to look for cancers, for example. It is very concerning that Cancer Focus has indicated that around 1,000 fewer cancers have been detected this year than had been at the same time last year. I am therefore absolutely delighted that the services that are provided at the marts and in other rural locations are up and running again.
I am happy to discuss how we could expand that service with the PHA and the Department of Health. One of the big issues in health that we are all aware of is that early detection saves lives: early detection of cancers, circulatory illnesses, blood pressure problems and so on, and the prevention of heart attacks. The more we do this, the more conditions we will detect early and, consequently, the more we will avoid something that would be much more expensive for the healthcare system and, more importantly, far more damaging to the individual. I am happy to work with the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency on identifying how we can expand the service. I am happy to prioritise money for that because it has to be an absolute priority. I am happy to commit to that.