Efforts to improve failing stroke services in Northern Ireland have suffered a major setback following the collapse of Stormont.
The Stroke Association has said the failure to address the postcode lottery of stroke services here could cost lives.
A public consultation on reform of stroke services has been postponed indefinitely as politicians prepare for a snap Assembly election. The charity has hit out at the delay, claiming lives are being lost, while others are being left with life-changing disabilities as a result of failings in stroke services.
Health bosses were due to carry out a consultation on stroke services last year. However, this was postponed in anticipation of the results of the Bengoa Report - a major review of the health service in Northern Ireland.
It was hoped the consultation would get under way next month but the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) told the Stroke Association last week that the process cannot happen now due to the situation at Stormont.
The 2016 Stroke National Audit found that Northern Ireland has no seven-day stroke therapy service, poor access to specialist stroke units and inadequate rehabilitation and long-term support in the community.
Stroke survivors also face indefinite waits for review appointments with specialist doctors. Barry Macaulay, director of the Stroke Association in Northern Ireland, said: "Despite the substantial progress which has been made and the many dedicated health professionals in Northern Ireland, our stroke services are lagging behind the rest of the UK.
"This is leading to avoidable stroke-related deaths and disability. The news that the long awaited public consultation on stroke services has been postponed is extremely worrying."
An HSCB spokesperson said it is committed to improving stroke services.
"The HSCB and PHA are working very closely with a wide range of stakeholders, including the Department of Health and the voluntary sector, to progress the reform of stroke services as a matter of priority in line with the Minister's vision.
"It is important that a wide range of stakeholders, service users and HSC staff are involved in co-designing the new model of care.
"The HSCB and PHA will therefore be further engaging with the community on the shaping of the new model over the next few months to be followed by a formal public consultation on the final proposals.
"There are clear opportunities to improve stroke services and the outcomes for stroke survivors in the North of Ireland and we are firmly committed to taking this important work forward in partnership with patients, families, partner organisations and the wider community."