The number of people waiting longer than one year for a hospital appointment grew by almost 17,000 in January this year, it can be revealed.
According to startling figures from the Health & Social Care Board (HSCB), almost 180,000 people had been waiting longer than 52 weeks for a first outpatient appointment at the end of January — up from 167,806 on December 31.
In relation to elective inpatient or day case treatment, 61,075 people had been waiting longer than a year for an appointment at the end of January — an increase of 4,833 people since the end of December.
The figures highlight the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic during the height of the recent Covid-19 surge as the health service buckled under demand.
They have come to light as it emerged the parents of a five-year-old boy are taking out a loan to pay for a potentially lifesaving operation for their son.
According to DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley, a member of the Stormont health committee, the youngster needs a tonsillectomy and will be unable to eat solid food until the operation is carried out.
Mr Buckley, who said he is horrified by the case, said the child has also been excluded from school because he is at risk of choking.
Despite the very obvious risk to the schoolboy and the fact he is missing school, he faces an indefinite wait for the surgery, forcing his parents to take their child to a private hospital for treatment and accruing debt as a result.
Health trusts across Northern Ireland were forced to cancel a raft of outpatient appointments and elective surgeries at the start of the year so staff could be diverted from their normal roles to help with the Covid-19 response as hospitals were swamped by people seriously ill with the virus.
Officials have warned they do not known when services will return to full capacity.
Figures contained in an HSCB document have revealed only 14% of people waiting for a first outpatient appointment at the end of January were waiting less than nine weeks — 288,333 were waiting longer than nine weeks compared to 275,651 at the end of December 2020.
The paper said the “figures do not include those waiting for a first outpatient appointment at a day procedure centre (DPC) for cataracts or varicose veins”.
It continued: “At the end of December 2020, in addition to the above, 12,040 patients were waiting longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient at a cataracts DPC. There were no outpatients waiting for varicose veins at a DPC.”
It also said the inpatient figures do not include the patients who were waiting for treatment at a DPC for cataracts or varicose veins.
A spokesman for the HSCB declined to comment on the experience of the five-year-old child.
However, he said: “It isn’t right that any patient should wait longer than is clinically appropriate for surgery and I fully understand the distress and anxiety that long waiting times cause, particularly when patients are suffering pain and discomfort.
“Waiting times for elective care have been unacceptable for some time and have deteriorated further as a consequence of the pandemic.
“Reducing waiting lists to an acceptable level and reforming services to ensure future sustainability is complex and long term and will require significant and sustained investment.”
Yesterday, Northern Ireland recorded 109 new cases of Covid-19 but no further deaths linked to the virus.
There were 48 inpatients with Covid-19, of which five were in intensive care.
Five hospitals were operating over capacity, with 145 people awaiting admission.