The number of women in Northern Ireland who had to wait more than two weeks to see a breast cancer consultant has risen 55-fold since 2011, FactCheck analysis can reveal.

Northern Ireland’s health service has a target that every patient with suspected breast cancer should be seen by a specialist within 14 days of a referral.

Our analysis of official data finds that on average in 2011, ten patients a month were seen after a longer wait than that. By 2022, the figure was 569.

Although that’s a slight improvement on the previous year (when the figure hit 609 a month on average), it still represents a more than fifty-fold increase since the start of the last decade.

Our 2022 calculations are based on the latest available data from the Northern Ireland executive, which covers January to September.

Performance against the 14-day target has worsened since Covid struck in 2020, but it’s clear that there were problems even before the pandemic hit.

By 2019, the average number of patients seen outside the target time was 14.5 times higher than it had been in 2011.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Department of Health told FactCheck: “It is extremely disappointing that the Department’s performance targets for cancer waiting times are not being met. The length of time patients in Northern Ireland were waiting for assessment, diagnosis and treatment for cancer was increasing before the pandemic and this has been exacerbated in the past three years.

They added: “The Department and entire HSC [health and social care] system are committed to reducing cancer waiting times. Our cancer screening programmes have significantly increased activity and both bowel and breast cancer screening are now above pre-pandemic levels.”

However, they also suggested that the current turmoil in the Northern Ireland assembly is hindering progress. The spokesperson told FactCheck: “In the absence of an agreed multi-year budget for health and a significant projected overspend for the year, the ability to strategically plan beyond 22/23 is extremely challenging.”

Long A&E waits more than doubled before the pandemic

It’s not just breast cancer referrals where Northern Ireland’s health system is struggling.

Our analysis finds that the number of people waiting more than four hours in A&E – another key health service target – was 2.7 times higher in 2022 than it had been in 2011.

In 2011, around 11,000 patients waited longer than this in A&E each month on average. Last year, this figure was just under 30,000. (Again, 2022 figures are based on data up to September.)

And most of that increase occurred before the pandemic began. By 2019, the number of people waiting longer than the target time in A&E was already 2.4 times higher than in 2011.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Department of Health told FactCheck: “The Department of Health remains extremely concerned at the scale of the current pressures on health and social care services […] The challenges being faced here are mirrored in neighbouring jurisdictions. It is the reality that there are no quick or simple solutions.”

The spokesperson added that while there were some practical measures that are “important and can make a difference on the ground” these “will not by themselves resolve the fundamental problem at the heart of current pressures: the serious mismatch between the demand for care and the current capacity of the system to meet it.”

“That can only be fixed,” they continued, “by sustained and long-term action to secure greater capacity”.