Cancer is such an important subject to discuss. When discussing it, we should not engage in political bickering. We need to look for solutions and look to address the issues at hand.
As someone who has served in the role, I wish the Minister well in tackling this issue on behalf of all of us. It is critical that we continue with much of the good work that has already been achieved.
On the first day of the previous Assembly, I recall that I was confronted by the Pink Ladies, a group which many people from the city of Londonderry will know well. They were here wanting to know why Altnagelvin cancer unit, the radiotherapy unit, was not proceeding. I agreed to go and meet people in Altnagelvin and to look at the finances. The first decision that I made as Minister was to proceed with that cancer unit and change the decision that had been taken by the previous Minister, because cancer is too important to play politics with. The money was there to do it. It is being done, and it will deliver a service, not just for the people in that vicinity but for people in Donegal. It will also relieve the radiotherapy service that is available in Belfast City Hospital. The truth is that this unit in Altnagelvin is not just a service for people in the west of Northern Ireland; it is a service for all the people in Northern Ireland. People from the west were travelling for two hours to get 15 minutes of radiotherapy and then travelling for two hours back. People were telling me that, when it snowed, it was actually an all-day route for 15 minutes of care. Those people will not be using that service, and therefore it will create greater availability for people in greater Belfast and the eastern part of Northern Ireland. It was absolutely critical that that happened. With the growing numbers of people who actually require cancer care, we simply could not have coped if we had not proceeded with that particular facility.
I would like to pay tribute to the people who are carrying out research in Queen's University and work very closely with the people in the Belfast City Hospital cancer unit. For around 20% of those key cancers, research-based drugs are being made available to people. That is one of the highest anywhere in the United Kingdom. For breast cancer, which we have referred to, we have amongst the best results anywhere in the United Kingdom, and the message should not be going out there —
We are achieving the best results in the United Kingdom. Do not let the message go out there that we are providing some second-class cancer care services because we are not. It is critical that we do not rest on our laurels and that we still focus on delivering better care and better results. Any trust can have a particular problem at a particular time because they are dealing with people who have key specialisms. When someone has a specialism in oncology, you just cannot go down to the local broo office and pick up someone else to replace them. It is not as simple as that, and people should not make contrived simplistic arguments about that. These are people who have key specialisms and who are incredibly hard to replace, and trusts will work very hard to replace them as quickly as possible because that is their responsibility.
We are spending more on cancer drugs than ever before, and there are some absolutely superb drugs coming onto the market. We are doing more with the cancer treatments that are available. For example, a few years ago, stereotactic radiotherapy was not available in our radiotherapy units; we were sending people to England to get that. Now that is available in Northern Ireland. Tremendous strides have taken place, and I think that there are huge opportunities.
I just want to say something on staff morale. My wife has worked in cancer care, in oncology and haematology, for over 25 years, and I do not detect this low morale from her or her colleagues. I do detect a huge commitment to provide the care for people who really need it. Whenever we bump into people in the streets who receive that care, as we regularly do, they say how wonderful our staff are, how wonderful the care is and how brilliant the treatment for cancer is here in Northern Ireland. We can always do better and we need to support the Minister —
Thank you. We need to support the Minister to ensure that we continue to do better.
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