The number of Northern Ireland children who had cardiac surgery in Dublin in the first five months of 2020 jumped by almost 50% compared to last year, it has emerged.
The Department of Health has revealed that, despite the effects of Covid-19 on the delivery on key services, 40 children travelled to Dublin for heart surgery between January and May.
This compares to 27 children for the same time period in 2019.
Health Minister Robin Swann said the well-established links to surgical and interventional cardiology has ensured essential access for Northern Ireland patients, as well as allowing families to stay together while children undergo vital treatments.
"The continued commitment and dedication of the Belfast and Dublin Paediatric Cardiology teams demonstrates what true partnership working in a modern-day health service looks like," he said.
"I have heard first-hand about the work the nursing, medical and surgical staff at Children's Health Ireland in Crumlin are doing and it is thanks to them and their colleagues in the Belfast Trust that we are now on the road to building a world class paediatric cardiology programme across our two health systems. That in itself is a unique achievement.
"To weather the additional challenges placed on them by Covid-19, to continue providing critical surgeries and saving lives, is something special.
"I would like to extend my thanks to those staff involved in delivering this service and to Minister Simon Harris for their continued support.
"I would also extend my sincere thanks to the paediatric cardiology team in the Belfast Trust for their care and support of their patients."
Mr Swann, whose son Evan was born with a congenital heart defect in February 2013, had campaigned for the retention of paediatric cardiac surgery in Northern Ireland.
He had previously raised concerns about children travelling outside of Northern Ireland when plans were under way to develop a cross-border service due to a shortage of surgeons in Belfast.
However, speaking this week, he said he is "reassured that any baby born with congenital heart disease in Northern Ireland now has access to a level of care comparable to anywhere in the world".
Professor Frank Casey, consultant paediatric cardiologist at Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and clinical lead in Northern Ireland, said: "By working in close partnership the teams in Belfast and Dublin have been able to deliver safe care during the Covid-19 crisis for those children with congenital heart disease needing emergency or urgent surgery."