Putting lung health back on the political agenda

Coronavirus has shown the need to put lung health on the political agenda. Joseph, our Head of Devolved Nations, writes about the first public meeting of the All Party Group on Lung Health and engaging with MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) again.

Since the Northern Ireland Executive was re-established in January 2020, we at the British Lung Foundation, along with Asthma UK have been working closely with all political parties to call for a comprehensive lung health strategy.

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of people with lung conditions and the fragility of the support available to them. It has also proven that health and social care can work in different ways by using technology and remote support to engage with people from the comfort of their own homes.

We believe the time is right to push for an ambitious respiratory health strategy for Northern Ireland and to enable this through Taskforce NI.

What’s the problem?

Lung disease has a lower profile both in the public mind and within healthcare circles, even though nearly twice as many people per day are diagnosed with respiratory disease than non-respiratory cancers. Lung disease is costing over £250 million a year in Northern Ireland.

Recent statistics have shown that there has been little improvement in respiratory deaths, numbers of people smoking or in air quality across Northern Ireland.

  • Between 2008 and 2018 the number of respiratory deaths increased from 2,096 a year to 2,201. 2018 was the second worst year with only 2015 being higher recording 2,236 deaths.
  • Deaths from chronic lower respiratory disease, including COPD, rose from 760 in 2008 to 988 in 2018.
  • Deaths from asthma rose from 30 in 2008 to 37 in 2018.
  • In 2019 Northern Ireland had the worst smoking figures in the UK with 15.6% regularly smoking (compared to 13.9% in England, 15.4% in Scotland and 15.5% in Wales). The prevalence has only dropped 0.9% in 2 years and it is consistently higher than the rest of the UK.

The new All Party Group on Lung Health

In September, a group of MLAs joined the British Lung Foundation and our sister charity Asthma UK to set up a new All Party Group on Lung Health. This is designed to raise awareness of lung conditions and make the case for a new lung health strategy.

We had our first public meeting on 19 October with 52 attendees including people with lung conditions, health care professionals and 6 MLAs. The new All Party Group is chaired by DUP MLA for South Antrim and has representatives from the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Alliance Party.

The meeting focussed on pulmonary rehabilitation and self-management. We heard from physiotherapists and the Charted Society of Physiotherapy about their concerns about delivering Long-COVID rehabilitation. They worried that providing support for people recovering from COVID-19 without additional funding for staff and facilities could negatively impact on existing pulmonary rehabilitation services, putting people with COPD, Bronchiectasis and IPF at risk.

In England £10 million has been promised in additional local funding to help establish Long COVID clinics, yet in Northern Ireland pulmonary rehabilitation teams are being asked to provide this support.

Next steps

Our next meeting will be on 19 January 2021 at 1pm and will focus on preventing lung conditions, specifically looking at air pollution and tobacco control. If you would be interested in taking part in this next meeting or would be interested in sharing your experience of pulmonary rehabilitation in Northern Ireland, please email [email protected].


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9 November 2020