NI hospitals postpone non-urgent surgery
Routine, non-urgent operations in Northern Ireland hospitals have been postponed until the end of January, the BBC has learned.
The news came in a leaked e-mail written by the director of surgery at the Belfast Health Trust.
Surgeons were told all cardiac, cancer and other urgent cases would go ahead.
A vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons warned the decision would have a greater impact in Northern Ireland than in England.
This is because of Northern Ireland's existing waiting lists.
A spokesperson from the Health and Social Care Board said some routine elective operations would still go ahead in January and would be reviewed on an ongoing specialty-by-specialty basis.
Sue Hill, vascular surgeon and vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said she recognised the huge pressures that trusts are under this winter.
She said she also understood that by cancelling less urgent surgery, the health service could focus resources on those in need of emergency care.
Nevertheless, she said, this was not welcome news.
"I think it will have particular impact in Northern Ireland because the situation is already worse than it is in England," she said.
"If you have a patient who is already waiting for nearly a year for your treatment, you are waiting in pain and a further month's delay is significant to you.
"Tens of thousands of patients have already been waiting over a year for their operation, compared to around 1,500 in England."
In a statement, the Health and Social Care Board said that as part of its plans for the winter period, all trusts had scheduled a reduced level of elective activity during the first half of January taking account of expected, unscheduled care pressures.
It said that given the ongoing pressures across all hospitals, this reduced level of activity would be extended to the end of January.
The trusts said postponed operations would be rebooked as soon as possible.
Alison Chesney, 53, from Scarva is one of the patients who has had an operation cancelled.
She was given a date for a knee operation at Craigavon Area Hospital for the beginning of January after waiting for two years.
But in the past fortnight, it has been cancelled twice due to the winter pressures. She said she feels disappointed.
"I know that my operation is not life or death and I am not waiting for cancer surgery or cardiac surgery, but I've waited for two years and I can almost not walk now," she said.
"When I got the date for my operation I wound down any work that I had or cancelled it for three months in front of me which I can't easily pick up again."
The Southern Trust said it could not comment on a specific case, but said between 1 December 2017 and 4 January, a total of 222 planned operations had to be cancelled because of significantly higher than expected numbers of people being admitted to hospital.
The trust apologised to patients affected and is working hard to reschedule everyone.
Figures obtained by the BBC's Nolan Show reveal that a total of 357 operations have been cancelled in hospitals over the past month.
GP George O'Neill said he believes he has a solution.
"Day surgery could be delivered in a separate unit with a separate staff that are not removed from that unit and are not used to prop up the acute sector or the emergency medical side."