Elective surgery in Northern Ireland will not return until next year, it has been warned.
hospital consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, has provided a devastating assessment of surgical services here, with theatres lying empty due to the staffing crisis facing Northern Ireland's nursing workforce.
He claimed surgeons are "twiddling their thumbs" unable to help tens of thousands of people waiting for operations due a shortage of nurses.
"The major issue is that there aren't enough theatre nurses," he said.
"I speak to surgeons across all specialties at Craigavon, the Mater, Ulster, Musgrave, the City, Royal and Antrim and they aren't getting a lot of operating time because of a lack of nursing staff. For example, Musgrave Park Hospital has nine theatres, but they can only staff a few of them.
"The health service didn't have enough nursing staff prior to Covid, so with all the staff being redeployed, people off sick and shielding, it has hit elective capacity very hard.
"It seems it's unlikely that elective surgery is going to increase this side of Christmas.
"At the moment, they're only really doing cancer and urgent but to be fair, if you have 100 patients waiting for cancer operations and 100 patients waiting for hip replacements, you're going to do the cancer operations.
"I think one of the problems the health service faces is that nurses have been undervalued for many years, you're asking them to work in very high pressure environments and if you don't pay them appropriately, this is what happens. It's very depressing, we've all these surgeons twiddling their thumbs, doing nothing, itching to do what they trained to do. I've been doing this job for decades and I still thoroughly enjoy it, so it's very frustrating.
"The health service was in pretty poor shape before Covid-19 happened and waiting times are going up every week, they've gone up considerably.
"I work in the private sector, in Kingsbridge, and we're back to full tilt, we're pretty much back to 95% of what we were pre-Covid because we had set up a whole load of processes in order to facilitate safe services, starting with self-isolation for two weeks prior to surgery, then Covid testing 24 to 48 hours beforehand, temperature checks and screening with a questionnaire.
"The biggest problem we've had is getting patients to isolate for two weeks because it means they have to take that time off work, but we have found the older people, who want to get back to walking because they need a hip replacement, they're quite happy to isolate.
"We haven't had a patient yet develop Covid during a hospital stay."
The doctor also raised concerns over plans announced last week by the Health Minister Robin Swann to open specialist surgical hubs to help address waiting times.
Mr Swann revealed his intention to open an elective surgery centre at Lagan Valley Hospital and orthopaedic surgery centres at Altnagelvin and Musgrave Park hospitals.
However, the medic said: "I would be asking the minister how he plans to staff these units. Where are they going to get the extra nurses to open up more theatres?"
Pat Cullen, Director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in NI, said that cutting nursing posts and training places has had a "catastrophic impact on nursing".
She said: "Patients are now suffering the consequences of short-sighted and short-term financial decisions.
"In real terms this means patients have been languishing on waiting lists for far too long and it is distressing to hear about the impact this is having on people's lives.
"Without nurses we have no health care system. If we are to attract people into our profession, and keep them, nurses must be paid properly," she added. "There's no point in applauding the great work that nurses do unless we are willing to show them through actions that they are truly valued."
The Department of Health said it is "fully aware" of the situation regarding theatre nurses and "is taking action to respond to nursing workforce challenges".
This includes a workforce strategy with the aim that the health service meets its workforce needs by 2026, increasing training places for nurses, the reintroduction of pay parity with England and a commitment to work with trade unions on safe staffing.