More than 200,000 patients languishing on hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland have been dealt a bitter blow as a multi-million pound shortfall in the health budget is revealed.
Northern Ireland's draft budget was released earlier this week and it has emerged that the Department of Health is to receive a 5.7% uplift to the money it received last year.
However, Health Minister Robin Swann has revealed that he needs an additional 6% in order to ensure he can maintain services at their current level.
A health service source said the current proposed budget will mean "another year of limping along and making do" by cash-strapped health bosses.
After almost a year of coping with the coronavirus pandemic, the health service in Northern Ireland is currently in crisis.
When Mr Swann became Health Minister in January last year, he hoped to address a number of serious issues, including tackling Northern Ireland's waiting list shame and begin to rebuild the chronically understaffed and underfunded workforce.
However, he has now said this will be impossible due to the draft budget.
"We need 6% year on year to stand still, so that allows us to basically do nothing in regards to further transformation or further staff increases," he said.
Mr Swann's assessment of his ability to tackle waiting lists will be particularly devastating to the hundreds of thousands of people across Northern Ireland who are currently waiting for a hospital appointment.
According to most recent figures, at the end of last September, 155,497 people had been waiting longer than a year for their first outpatient appointment. A further 46,417 people had been waiting longer than 52 weeks for inpatient or day case treatment. In total, 426,907 people were waiting for a first outpatient appointment or an elective procedure at the time.
Hospital waiting times have rocketed in recent years - when Mr Swann took up his post last year, there were 395,531 people waiting for a first hospital appointment or for inpatient treatment.
The numbers of people waiting longer than 12 months has also soared - in December 2019, 111,963 people had been waiting longer than 12 months for their first outpatient appointment, an increase of 39% by last September, while 27,090 people had been waiting longer than a year for inpatient treatment, a huge increase of 71%.
Dr Laurence Dorman, chair of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, said: "Waiting lists here are shameful, and there is no doubt the pandemic will exacerbate the situation.
"We talk about waiting lists so regularly it is important to remember that these are not just faceless figures.
"Behind the data are individual people who are living with real pain and anxiety about their condition. We need to see a robust strategy for dealing with waiting lists and it is troubling that the proposed budget may not accommodate the significant investment that will be required."