Cancer patients will be offered surgery at any hospital in Northern Ireland in a bid to save lives, it has emerged.
Hundreds of red-flag operations have been cancelled since the start of the year and an unknown number of people are still waiting for a first date for surgery.
However, health bosses are taking a regional approach to cancer surgery by allocating slots, when they become available, to those most at risk from their cancer.
While it may mean patients having to travel further for their operation, it is hoped it will reduce the wait for the sickest people.
But three leading local health officials have warned that vital cancer surgery will only increase once the coronavirus pandemic is finally brought under control.
Speaking at a meeting of the Stormont health committee during the week, the chief executives of the Belfast, Northern and Southern Trusts issued an appeal to the public to adhere to guidance to drive down Covid-19 infection rates.
Northern Trust boss Jennifer Welsh said: "We are looking at this across the region. Whenever we look at the postcodes, it may be that one area starts to emerge from this ahead of the others.
"But we have a commitment to work together as a region (so) that those patients who are most in need will be reprioritised for surgery first of all.
"So, you may not get surgery in your own trust area, but if you are in need, you will be one of the ones who gets the precious surgical slot. I do also want to mention that I think this is really difficult for our clinical teams. They are having to work hard to identify who is a priority when we know that all of these patients are actually a priority.
(They) work through all of those patient lists and agree, 'Well, actually, this is the priority or these are the very sickest patients for whom we are most worried."
Ms Welsh (above) was joined by Southern Trust boss Shane Devlin (left) and Belfast Trust chief executive Dr Cathy Jack, who called for the resumption of elective surgery.
Mr Devlin explained: "What we are doing as a collective (is) we're looking at how we can provide services for the most urgent cancer patients across Northern Ireland.
"(We are) using available resources and facilities as a collective to try to find appropriate places for those people to have their surgery.
"But the key for me is, I need to downturn the Covid heat so I can upturn services again.
"That is totally dependent on the amount of Covid that is in our community and is finding its way into our hospitals.
"I wish I could provide an assurance to my patients as to when they will get their surgery, but I need the Covid level to drop to enable me to re-engage my theatres with anaesthetics and nursing staff to allow me to do that."
Dervilia Kernaghan, from Cancer Focus NI, expressed concern over what patients and their families were being forced to go through.
"There will be an inevitable backlog and wave of later-stage diagnoses creating further pressure on our health system down the line," she said.
"Those diagnosed at a later stage often need more intensive and expensive treatment compared to those diagnosed at an early stage.
"We would strongly encourage anyone who has any health concerns, or is worried about cancer during the pandemic and beyond, to talk to their doctor as soon as possible.
"Delays in treatment place enormous stress on patients and on their families, who are waiting and worrying, and our hearts go out to them. For many cancer patients, time is not a luxury they can afford.
"The support services that Cancer Focus NI offers, such as counselling and family support, have never been more in demand."