The Belfast Trust has said “extreme pressure” due to “children experiencing new respiratory symptoms and management of the Covid-19 pandemic” has contributed towards the postponement of children’s operations, and has the potential to continue until March next year
“Regrettably, we have had to postpone 14 surgeries since October 1 due to bed availability but emergency surgeries continue,” said Dr Karl McKeever, clinical director at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
A spokesperson for the Belfast Trust said that the hospital has “been managing the early onset of winter pressures since August” which has been “compounded by the impact of Covid-19 and the availability of staff”.
The average number of attendances at the hospital's emergency department (ED) in June were around 100 children over 24 hours, but now the trust reported it has “seen as many as 184 children” attending ED in one day.
"This is the highest we have recorded. 22 of those children were admitted to hospital.
“This increase is due to the rise in respiratory illnesses among children – particularly Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) which can be very significant for children under two years old.”
“It is important to note that most children attending the hospital are not sick with Covid-19, but it is impacting on their health in other ways,” Dr McKeever continued.
"For example, Covid control measures have prevented children from mixing as normal during the pandemic with the need for social distancing being a key safety measure when managing the prevalence of the virus.
“We are now seeing RSV and other viruses becoming prevalent in children, especially those with lower immunity, who have had the opportunity to mix with other children who carry such respiratory viruses.
“We deeply regret that some patients with less urgent conditions may face a longer wait for surgery than we would like and we sincerely apologise to anyone who has been affected by this.
"We would like to assure our patients and our families that we are working hard to reschedule any surgery we have postponed,” he said.
Dr McKeever added that the Belfast Trust has implemented a consultant on call for GP practices, to contact daily for advice and support to manage cases in the community, to help cope with the winter surge.
"Belfast Trust and the Children’s Hospital are following UK wide agreed Royal College of Surgeons surgical prioritisation protocols,” he said.
Covid transmission rates have remained high in Northern Ireland with a further six deaths and 1,423 new cases recorded on Wednesday.
Senior doctors previously warned that with winter pressures, RSV for children, the next wave of flu and Covid, services will come under immense strain.
RSV is a major cause of bronchiolitis, and also causes tracheobronchitis and pneumonia.
Incidence of the disease peaks in winter and early spring, and is most severe in young children, those born prematurely or with chronic cardiorespiratory disease, and the immunocompromised.
Staff sickness has also been cited as a factor impacting on the ability of local hospitals to cope.
Last winter, children’s services were largely unaffected, but doctors have concerns that may not be the case this year.