Covid-19: 'Surgeries must be protected' in any future wave

By Lesley Anne McKeown & Marie-Louise Connolly
BBC News NI health team

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Covid-free sites must be developed to protect surgeries in the event of another coronavirus wave, a leading consultant has said.

Mark Taylor, from the Royal College of Surgeons in Northern Ireland, said lessons must be learned from the past year.

"The conditions that need surgery don't go away because of Covid," he said.

His warning comes as the BBC learned an estimated 1,600 cancer patients have been missed because of the pandemic.

According to the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry, a research body which helps inform decision-making, hundreds of people with serious cancers have yet to be diagnosed.

The figures include 200 bowel cancers, 200 lung cancers and 100 upper gastrointestinal cancers.

media captionCancer: "It's awful to think of her as collateral damage"

The Department of Health said every attempt had been made to protect the most urgent surgeries and to reschedule postponed operations as quickly as possible.

There were fewer cancellations during this latest surge than at the height of the first surge last March due to "robust planning and prioritisation" despite more service pressures, it added.

'Collateral damage'

Among those patients adversely affected by the pandemic is Flo McClements.

The 72-year-old grandmother was diagnosed with an ovarian tumour last December.

Her surgery was postponed for three weeks earlier this year and when it did happen, doctors found the cancer had spread.

Her family have said they feel like "collateral damage" for the relaxation of restrictions over Christmas.

Daughter-in-law Christine McClements told BBC News NI: "It was awful. She is my mother-in-law and means everything to us.

"Cancer treatment is time critical."

Gregg McClements said the delay has been "detrimental" to his mother.

"The consultant had advised us we have gone from being able to cure my mum's cancer to now just being able to treat it and give her chemotherapy. Hopefully that might get it in remission, but there is no guarantee.

"So it is all devastating."

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At his most recent appearance before a Stormont scrutiny committee, Health Minister Robin Swann said he wanted to see action to repair some of the damage Covid-19 had caused to the health service.

"I am keen that we scale up this high-priority surgery as quickly as possible," he told assembly members.

"This can be done by initially creating green pathways, as they have become known elsewhere.

"Eventually turning Belfast City Hospital into a green site which will serve the region."

The solution?

Mark Regan, chief executive officer of the private Kingsbridge Hospital in Belfast, said the sector had provided an "essential" lifeline for the health service over the past year and maintaining that co-operation should be part of the solution.

He told BBC News NI that 1,754 surgeries had been performed on NHS patients and 13,267 CT, MRI and ultrasound scans carried out since the start of the pandemic.

"The outcome is ultimately that patients that may not have been able to be seen within the NHS are now being treated in each of the three independent hospitals," he said.

"Those are patients that are time dependent, red flag, cancers and things that could progress and could have a bigger impact if left."

Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, said finding a way forward would ultimately depend on "long-term strategic planning".

"It's not good enough to say we don't have the resources.

"It's up to the Department of Health to make sure they have those resources; buy in those resources from the private sector if that's what is required.

"If we look at NHS England - they have set out a recovery plan with targets which talks about workforce planning; realises there will have to be specialists within the workforce and they have set out how they are going to do that.

"We should expect the same."

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