It is "absolutely frightening" that more than 100 cancer-related hospital procedures have been postponed this month by the Belfast Health Trust, an MLA has said.
In a statement issued via Twitter, a Trust spokesperson said it accepted that the decision would cause anxiety and distress to patients.
"Regrettably, the Belfast Trust postponed 106 cancer related procedures in October. Covid-19 admissions continuing to rise has put increasing pressures on hospitals, which led to the Trust taking the extremely difficult decision to cancel surgeries in order to expand our Covid ICU and support teams caring for Covid patients," the statement said.
"We do not underestimate the anxiety and distress this causes patients and families affected and we sincerely apologise for this.
"We fully understand how important it is for many cancer patients to have surgery in a timely way and we are doing everything we can to ensure any postponed procedures are rescheduled as soon as possible."
It's understood that the 106 procedures include both surgeries and scopes.
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, who is a member of Stormont's Health Committee, said: "It is absolutely frightening what is happening.
"I chair the All Party Group at Stormont on cancer - and we are so concerned about this issue.
"People have to reflect on their behaviour, and how that reads across into pressure on our health service."
"Time is absolutely of the essence when it comes to these cancer procedures - so I am very concerned that there are going to be a lot of people whose cancer diagnoses are going to be missed, surgeries are going to be too late - and people are ultimately going to lose their lives because the health service in Northern Ireland is crumbling under the pressures."
Action Cancer chief executive Gareth Kirk told the Belfast Telegraph last night: "The Trust has issued a very genuine apology for this tragic situation.
"However, from our perspective, we are now seven months into this pandemic, and we are well past the period where we are making apologies.
"Apologies are no good to people who are waiting for a cancer diagnosis.
"Apologies are no good for someone who was waiting to have a lifesaving surgery and it's cancelled."
Apologies are well meaning, but of little value, he said.
"What we really need is action: what we need is a strategy to ensure that this does not happen again."
The Covid-19 pandemic is not going away, the charity chief said.
"Ineveitably, there will be another circuit breaker, another lockdown, in a late December, and another in March.
"Are they simply going to keep doing exactly the same thing - cancelling surgery, cancelling scopes, reducing sessions, cutting back the 50% screening programme?
"Seriously, is that their strategy? They have to ring-fence cancer service: they've got to protect cancer services.
"You can't simply say: we're going to stop. There are more people going to die from cancers than from Covid-19."
Dervilia Kernaghan, head of care services, Cancer Focus NI, said: "We are extremely concerned about the number of cancer related procedures that have already been postponed during the second wave of coronavirus.
"We acknowledge the extreme pressures that the health service is under and welcome the Health Minister’s £12.1m funding to prioritise diagnostic services. However, we are worried about what lies ahead with the likelihood of further postponements if too many patients are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and medical resources are diverted to deal with them.
"On top of this there will be an inevitable backlog and wave of later stage diagnoses creating further pressure on our health system, as those diagnosed at a later stage often need more intensive and expensive treatment compared to those diagnosed at an early stage. More resources need to be made available on a long-term basis and built into the new Cancer Strategy for Northern Ireland.
"Delays in treatment place enormous stress on patients and on their families, who are waiting and worrying. For many cancer patients, time is not a luxury they can afford."