The health service in Northern Ireland is likely to face a barrage of legal cases from patients who have been denied treatment due to the pandemic, as it can be revealed that 611 cancer operations have been cancelled in just two weeks.
According to figures released by the Health & Social Care Board yesterday, 1,329 elective procedures were cancelled between January 12 and January 25 as the health service buckles under the demands of Covid-19, and more than 600 of these were red flag and cancer operations.
Patrick Mullarkey, partner and joint head of healthcare with O'Reilly Stewart Solicitors, has warned there will be a "tsunami of medical negligence cases that could become one of the many fallouts of the pandemic".
"There have been many vivid and disturbing images throughout the Covid-19 pandemic that have relayed the pain, suffering and heartache that families have had to endure with loved ones suffering long lasting illness and so many losing their lives prematurely," he said.
Mr Mullarkey referred to the hundreds of cancelled cancer operations and said health service staff now find themselves in the "impossible position of choosing one life-saving treatment over another, prioritising patients suffering with one type of disease against another".
He described the current situation as a "ticking timebomb" which will have "long-term catastrophic consequences".
"With the possibility that the current lockdown restrictions could still be in place until Easter and easing only on a step-by-step basis, there is a potential for an influx of complaints directed at the health service relating to cancelled surgeries, treatment delays and growing waiting list times," he continued.
"It is not only cancer cases being affected - across all disciplines including hip surgery, hernias and back problems, waiting lists are increasing beyond the previous unacceptable levels.
"The impact of all this is that delayed diagnosis and treatments equate to worse outcomes, including avoidable deaths in urgent cases. From a legal viewpoint, the denial of appropriate and reasonable care to patients in such circumstances is in breach of a health care provider's duty to its patients.
"The impact that we have already seen in delayed diagnosis and care will, in the very near future, see a significant rise in the numbers of patients presenting with complaints of a lack of care.
"In general, when the courts come to assess such cases it does so by the standard required of the reasonable doctor or hospital, not by reference to the available resources. It is the assessment that matters, not the circumstances of the health service.
"All of this raises important issues of the negligence liability of public authorities which will be severely tested in the months and years ahead. And while we all long to condemn this awful disease to the annals of history, its divisive strains will be felt in boardrooms and courtrooms for some time to come."
Earlier this month, two Northern Ireland women were successful in their bid to seek leave for a judicial review into Northern Ireland's waiting list shame, which can see some patients waiting more than five years for a hospital appointment. The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.