Shortages and gaffes led to cancellation of over 600 kids' operations last year
More than 600 planned operations at Northern Ireland's children's hospital were cancelled at short notice last year, it can be revealed.
Official statistics highlighted the toll on sick youngsters as a result of staff, bed and equipment shortages at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
Shocking clerical errors also played a role in the cancellation of much-needed operations at the hospital.
Hundreds of procedures were cancelled between the start of April 2016 and the end of March this year for reasons including the patient not being told the date of their operation, a lack of nursing cover and patient notes not being available.
Figures provided under freedom of information legislation also revealed that operations did not go ahead because X-rays or blood products were not available, documentation was not properly filled out and surgeons were not available.
According to the statistics, only 78 of the 630 operations cancelled over the 12-month period failed to go ahead because of a change in clinical decision.
Health spokesperson for the Alliance Party Paula Bradshaw said the figures highlighted the need for the Assembly to resume as quickly as possible.
"At the moment, we don't have a Health Minister and we don't have a Health Committee. We need an agreement so that we can get Stormont up and running," she added.
"We need the health reform to be pushed through so that issues affecting the health service can be addressed, and we need a Health Minister to make that happen.
"Statistics are all very well, but behind them are children and their families and the untold difficulties and upset they face when operations are cancelled."
Ms Bradshaw stressed that the figures highlighted the impact of spiralling waiting lists on children.
The Alliance MLA said she was particularly concerned about the high number of operations cancelled because the patient was unfit for the procedure. In total, 194 operations were cancelled for this reason, accounting for 31% of all cancellations.
"I fear that this is due to the length of wait and that their health condition has deteriorated," she added.
"I feel that this warrants closer interrogation by the trust in order that it is addressed urgently.
"The figures also show operations have been cancelled to allow further investigations to take place, and I know I hear time and again from people who have had procedures put back because, by the time they come around, they need more tests done.
"I know I keep coming back to it, but we do need the Assembly to be back up and running.
"I was speaking to the chief executive of the Belfast Trust at an event and was saying I need to get up and have a chat with him to find out what is going on, and he said the exact same thing - that he wants to know what is happening.
"I think that is very revealing. No one seems to know what is going on and it is the patients who are losing out."
While the statistics revealed glaring errors by the trust and pressures on the workforce, they also highlighted the fact that patients were to blame for many of the cancellations.
Some of them failed to turn up, others refused to go under the knife and a proportion even failed to fast ahead of their planned surgery.
According to the statistics, patients cancelled operations on 107 occasions, while a further 28 failed to show up at the hospital for their procedure.
A Belfast Health and Social Care Trust spokeswoman said: "We understand how difficult it is when planned surgery is cancelled, and we work hard to avoid it."
She said that while it was regrettable that operations had to be cancelled, there would always be occasions when cancellations, for both clinical and non-clinical reasons, were unavoidable.
"We do all we can to avoid cancelling and aim to reschedule operations as soon as possible," the spokeswoman added.