Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), told the Stormont health committee that surgeons are facing “moral distress” due to their inability to carry out operations due to the pandemic.
Mr Taylor said there are currently almost half a million people in Northern Ireland currently waiting for surgery or a first appointment with a hospital consultant, and added that this is increasing pressure on emergency departments.
The committee was hearing evidence about winter pressures on the health service.
Mr Taylor said: “We face pressures never seen before on these shores.
“Not only the effect of the Covid pandemic, and the brutalising effect that it has had on our staff and society as a whole but, also, the pressures that one was used to in the depths of winter (have instead come to) our shores at the end of July.
“And on top of that the difficulties of trying to sustain services has led to a moral distress in our ranks.”
The surgeon added: “The Northern Ireland waiting times were tragic before Covid and, unfortunately, they are now much worse.
“Waiting lists are at an all-time high; 474,445 people are waiting for surgery or a first appointment with a consultant, based on figures from November 2021.”
Mr Taylor said the RCS supported Health Minister Robin Swann’s elective care framework, launched in the summer to ease waiting list pressures.
He added: “We know our emergency departments and ambulance colleagues are facing the most immense pressures. We know about the pressures in social care and primary care alongside the volume of delivering intense vaccination programmes and this week we hear of a new variant, Omicron.
“Covid-19 has deeply impacted levels and capacity of elective surgery like never before. It has been stripped down to the very basics.
“We have elective surgeries, including red flag cases, for example cancer, which are regularly being cancelled.
“We have record attendances in the emergency departments and I would suggest in part the waiting lists and the inability to deal with people in surgical terms is further burdening the emergency departments as these people seek constant attention for the very condition that we have the ability to rectify.”
He said that the RCS supported the creation of surgical hubs across Northern Ireland.
“This will make surgical services more sustainable and independent of the pressures we are experiencing. It will also future-proof the service for further pandemics or winter pressures as they arise.
“Timely access to surgical services is key to the Northern Ireland recovery, including our economic recovery.
“We are conscious of moral distress in our ranks. That moral distress comes from having a set of abilities, knowing what is needed to be done but finding it impossible to carry out such actions.”