The local health service in is facing the most difficult period it has ever encountered in its 73-year history, it has been warned.
Senior medic Dr Tom Black said he could not rule out the possibility of the NHS becoming overwhelmed over the coming winter months.
Mr Black also called on politicians to pay attention to warnings issued by medical professionals about the state of the health service.
Speaking ahead of today’s Executive meeting, where ministers are expected to discuss further Covid-19 relaxations, Dr Tom Black said: “It’s being described as ‘the great resignation’ and it’s coming this winter.
“Doctors, nurses, all healthcare workers have suffered nearly two years of heartache and physical and psychological stress.
“Doctors really believe this winter will be worse than anything we have seen before, worse than at any other point in the pandemic.
“It will be worse because we’re dealing with a backlog of patients and because staff are worn out. We will struggle to deliver what patients need.”
Dr Black, chair of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Council, said the number of people being diagnosed with Covid-19 remained stubbornly high, with the seven-day case rate currently lingering between 7,000 and 8,000.
He added that face coverings and social distancing were still important tools in stopping the spread of the virus.
“Our hope is that we can maintain the pandemic at the present plateau, but everything we know about Covid-19 suggests winter will make it worse,” he said.
“I can’t see how we’re going to have a lower rate of infection because this virus likes colder temperatures.
“People will have other illnesses and be more susceptible and they will be indoors a lot more.
“We also need to consider the waning of the immunity from the vaccine, all at a time when the system will be under huge pressure.
“If cases go up at all, the system will be overwhelmed, there’s no two ways about it.
“Even if we stay at the current level, there are no guarantees it won’t be overwhelmed.
“I think the message to our politicians is to listen to our chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, to listen to what doctors and nurses are saying. They must pay attention to them,
“We saw what happened last year when we tried to open up, and I suspect we’re going to reach a similar situation this winter.”