NORTHERN Ireland's Health Minister has said hospital waiting lists will be "frightening" after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Robin Swann made the grim prediction as he addressed members of the Stormont health committee during the week.
The UUP MLA paid tribute to the efforts of the public in bringing down the rate of the spread of the virus. He said this has helped to reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill and needing intensive care.
As a result of this, he has been able to stand down Northern Ireland's Nightingale hospital at the Belfast City tower block, which has resulted in some services beginning again.
However, he sounded a warning that it will take "serious financial commitment to fix the damage that this virus has done".
He also gave a clear indication that the public should not expect services to return to normal in the immediate future.
Mr Swann said: "I am acutely aware of the severe impact that Covid-19 has had on a whole breadth of key services, so shortly I will publish a strategic plan for rebuilding the HSC services.
"But instead of waiting until that happens, I have also made it clear to the trusts and to the department that as soon as services can be turned back on then I expect them to be and that is already happening.
"As I said last week, before Covid-19, our waiting lists were awful, they'll now be frightening.
"It will require serious efforts and serious financial commitment to fix the damage that this virus has done, yet it will also critically be important to recognise that there will not be a return to business as usual because Covid-19 will be with us for some time."
Waiting lists are one of the biggest issues in the health service, with some patients waiting up to 10 years for operations. According to the most recent Department of Health statistics, there were 305,017 patients waiting for a first outpatient appointment in Northern Ireland at the end of last year.
More than 78% of patients were waiting more than nine weeks for a first hospital appointment - up from 76% in September and at the same time in 2018.
Doctors and nurses across Northern Ireland were diverted from their normal roles in order to bolster staff numbers in the likes of critical care as health officials warned up to 15,000 people may die during the first surge of the virus.
A range of cancer treatments were also cancelled and there are concerns over the number of excess deaths in Northern Ireland as a result of the preparations to save lives of people critically ill with Covid-19.
There are also concerns that services that were closed in preparation for the pandemic, such as the emergency department at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, will never reopen. To date, Mr Swann has given no commitment that all services will reopen as they operated before the pandemic.