A Northern Ireland cancer charity said they are “sickened” over the cancellation of 24 cancer surgeries in Belfast this week.
Gareth Kirk from Action Cancer said the charity was “disappointed” but “not particularly surprised”, as the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust confirmed 24 patients' surgeries have been cancelled this week.
The cancellations come amid rising Covid-19 cases in hospital, with the Belfast Trust confirming the number of patients being treated for the virus having doubled from 50 to 100 in over a week.
On Thursday, Executive ministers are meeting to consider a number of relaxations around coronavirus restrictions, including on international travel.
Mr Kirk from Action Cancer told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “Having got a cancer diagnosis is tough psychologically, building up to the time of your surgery and your treatment is worrying and it is stressful and then to be led up to the top of the mountain and taken down again is cruel to say the very least.
"I think everyone, not just the cancer charities, had probably hoped what we experienced during the autumn and winter of last year was a one-off, that it wouldn't be repeated and yet we are now in July, the summer months that are generally very positive and we end up in this current situation.”
The Belfast Trust has apologised for the cancellations and said they are working to reschedule the surgeries as soon as next week.
Last week the trust announced that around 100 non-urgent planned procedures were being rescheduled as part of efforts to re-orientate services to deal with the latest surge in coronavirus admissions.
The Belfast Trust medical director Dr Chris Hagan said there is currently “enormous pressure” on intensive care units in hospital.
“Last week we were sitting at about 50 Covid patients in our hospital, that has now risen to over 100,” he said.
“There is enormous pressure on our intensive care units, with ten patients in our intensive care, seven of whom are ventilated, and this is a direct result of rising infections in the community due to unvaccinated people. That choice not to get vaccinated is leading on to direct effects like this.
“I can’t emphasise how sorry I am we have had to do this.
“We have a route out of this and this is vaccination. If you look at the vaccination figures at the moment less than 60% of our population aged 18-29 have been vaccinated.
“Less than 70% in the 30-39 have been vaccinated and it is the infections in those age groups that is primarily driving this. We can’t ignore that.”
Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the South Eastern Trust said one-time critical surgery had been cancelled on Wednesday in response to the pressures facing the health service and the situation with other planned surgeries was being reviewed on a day-to-day basis.
Earlier this week the Belfast Trust announced that six extra ICU beds were being made available to cope with the increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients.
The beds are being put in place at Belfast City Hospital due to capacity issues at the Royal Victoria and Mater hospitals.
On Sunday evening both the Belfast Trust and the South Eastern Trust issued emergency appeals to off-duty staff to come in to work to help colleagues deal with the escalating situation.
During a sitting of the Assembly Health Committee, the SDLP’s Cara Hunter called on the Department of Health and Trusts to “exhaust every avenue possible” to ensure no further cancer surgeries are cancelled.
Speaking after she said: “There was a lot of anger expressed during the committee meeting today.
"We are just so frustrated that patients who are suffering from cancer have had potentially life-saving surgeries cancelled at the last minute. It is hard to imagine the impact this has on patients, who are already struggling with illness, and their families.
"Having major surgery is a daunting experience for many and to build yourself up mentally for it only to be told it is not taking place is a devastating blow.
“During the meeting I appealed to health officials to find some way to facilitate these surgeries taking place, even in another trust area or part of these islands. With an illness like cancer treatment times can make all the difference and every avenue should be exhausted before a decision to cancel a surgery is made.
“I know our health service and our amazing staff are doing their best to cope at the minute with unprecedented pressures, but many of the problems we are currently experiencing were an issue before the pandemic.
"Long waiting lists for treatment did not appear overnight. The issues around cancer surgeries need dealt with as a matter of utmost importance but we also need to see the recovery plans from the Department of Health, properly funded by the Department of Finance, come to fruition to transform our health service and ensure that we never find ourselves in this position again.”
While the DUP’s Trevor Clarke said a number of constituents have contacted him about the cancellations.
"The cancellation of cancer operations is a sad indictment of the failures of our health service to build capacity over the past 16 months,” he said.
“I have had a number of conversations with justifiably concerned constituents that have had time-critical operations cancelled.
“Many patients feel let down once again by the health service. Cancer patients deserve better than to have their pain and anxieties compounded by cancelled appointments.”
In a statement the Department of Health said: “Unfortunately, we have witnessed a rapid rise in Covid-19 hospital inpatients and ICU occupancy over recent weeks," the department said.
"This has been combined with very significant ongoing unscheduled care pressures, putting our hospitals under immense pressure.
"In this context, the cancer surgery postponements are unavoidable."