The prospect of the health service handing back unspent money would be a “sad day” for Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.
It comes after it emerged that an inability to roll over funds into the coming financial year has forced the health service to hand back £90m in the midst of the pandemic.
However, the Royal College of Surgeons in Northern Ireland has warned additional funding is required to help tackle Northern Ireland’s waiting list crisis.
According to the most recent available figures, more than 200,000 people here had been waiting longer than a year for a first outpatient appointment or inpatient treatment in September last year.
A further 71,968 people had been waiting longer than 26 weeks for a diagnostic test.
Northern Ireland’s hospital waiting lists were spiraling out of control before the pandemic, but Health Minister Robin Swann has warned the situation will decline further in coming months.
The Royal College of Surgeons held a meeting with Mr Swann yesterday to discuss the current situation, as well as highlighting ways that some of the underspend in the health budget can help to revive surgery in Northern Ireland.
The Director and Northern Ireland Board members of the Royal College of Surgeons highlighted solutions, including stronger access to the independent sector and equitable allocation of nursing, theatre and anaesthetic staff.
They also explained challenges staff were facing in getting theatre space and a full surgical team to undertake urgent and time-dependent operations.
The surgical leaders from a range of specialties including cancer, ENT, general surgery and neurosurgery, also briefed the Minister on the health impact of the delays on patients.
Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland Director of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “It would be a sad day for Northern Ireland and our Government if we had to hand back much needed money when our situation is so dire,” he said.
“Patients expect us to take every opportunity we can to keep urgent surgery going during these difficult times and we want to do exactly just that.
“We know that the Executive are seeking flexibility from the Treasury to enable Stormont to roll money over to the next financial year and we sincerely hope they are successful because our waiting lists are horrendous.
“At the last count, we had more than 327,000 patients waiting for their first outpatient appointment with a consultant, while we had nearly 100,000 people waiting to be admitted to hospitals.
“The new Government waiting lists figures are out next month and I know they will be worse.
“Northern Ireland already had a backlog of surgery. This legacy of waiting lists and system failures is nothing new.
"The challenge of fixing Northern Ireland’s health service was already in the pipeline before the pandemic.”
Mr Taylor said it is essential that action is taken immediately to begin to address the situation.
"We have to try and get surgery going again, and give patients hope,” he continued.
“The Health Minister said only a few weeks ago that operations will take place for those most in need, when available hospital capacity becomes available and we welcomed that regional approach.
“This new regional approach may involve patients or surgeons travelling to those hospitals that have space for surgical patients.
“We know that patients waiting for urgent operations would rather travel to a different hospital for their operation if that’s the only safe place they can be treated right now.
“We must always remember behind the figures and the rhetoric are people waiting in pain and distress for diagnosis and treatment.”