Cancer surgery in Northern Ireland must resume within a matter of weeks to begin to address a backlog of more than 8,000 operations already cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has been warned.
As the region moves beyond the first peak of coronavirus, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in Northern Ireland has said health officials must now turn their attention to resuming red flag, urgent and routine surgeries in order to stem the growing number of patients without Covid-19 who are unable to access healthcare.
Among a series of recommendations made by the professional body to address waiting times in Northern Ireland are the establishment of a regional surgical network, theatres operating seven days a week and the continued use of private hospitals after contracts expire in June.
Mark Taylor, RCS (NI) Director, said: "Now is not the time to relax the criteria for the lockdown as this could put staff at risk and cost more lives.
"Health and Social Care staff in Northern Ireland have done an amazing job, stepping into new roles, supporting each other, working above and beyond what anyone could ask of them.
"The lockdown has undoubtedly saved lives and stopped the NHS from being overwhelmed.
"While managing coronavirus has rightly been our focus, we need now to help those people who have had their surgery delayed.
"We know that there are many people waiting for critical surgery. Our new guidance provides a framework to help manage the backlog of elective operations and restart surgery safely."
The RCS has surveyed members across the UK to establish the opinion of surgeons about the current situation in hospitals ahead of any efforts to resume elective surgery.
Its most recent survey of surgeons and trainees in Northern Ireland found there have been improvements in personal protective equipment supply, but there are still some limitations on the ability to undertake urgent surgery.
Mr Taylor continued: "We need to continue to prioritise urgent surgery, and be certain that frontline staff have the equipment they need to keep them safe, before resuming elective care. We welcomed the opportunity to share our guidance on resuming elective care services with the minister earlier this week.
"Re-engaging our services requires a huge team effort and we look forward to working closely with the minister, his team and our colleagues across Health and Social Care as we step into the next phase."
The proposals from the RCS, which met with the Health Minister, Robin Swann, to discuss the subject, have been published just days after the Belfast Telegraph revealed there were almost 180 additional non-Covid deaths in Northern Ireland over a three-week period during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Official statistics have highlighted a spike in excess deaths here in April - with 43% of the 410 additional deaths registered between the weeks ending April 3 and 17 not directly attributed to the killer virus.
The figures raised new concerns over the extent of deaths indirectly caused by the virus and prompted DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson to raise the matter at Westminster earlier this week.
Latest figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency yesterday have revealed that in the week ending April 24, the total number of deaths registered here was 470 - 186 more than the five-year average of 284.
Over the past four weeks, there were 596 excess deaths.