Cancer patients may die as a result of Covid-19 patients not being turned away from hospitals, Northern Ireland's Health Minister has admitted.

Robin Swann said the "black and white" reality was that the health service would not turn away people with coronavirus requiring admission to hospital, but that other services were being cut as a consequence.

The Ulster Unionist MLA admitted that he was "heartbroken" that nurses and doctors were finding themselves having to make moral and ethical decisions between coronavirus patients and very sick patients with other conditions.

He added that these decisions "have to be made because of the fact that we have over 400 beds within our hospitals being used to support Covid-19 patients".

"The ethical decision is could we turn a Covid patient away? The answer is 'no'," Mr Swann told BBC Radio Ulster.

"So where we get the latitude in our current system on our current footprint with our current staff is by saying to other people, 'sorry your operation, your scope, your diagnosis is going to have to be put off until we can safely accommodate you within the health service'."

Asked to clarify that he was saying that a Covid-19 patient will not be turned away but the result of the decision is that a cancer patient may die, Mr Swann replied: "Yeah, that is as black and white as it is."

The North Antrim MLA added that the health service was being put under "additional strain" because they were trying to keep as many services running as possible unlike at the outset of the pandemic.

"In the first wave we downturned dramatically because we didn't know what was front of us," he said.

"This wave is actually higher. There are more inpatients, there are more people in ICU than we had in the first wave.

"Our health service is stepping up trying to keep as much as they possibly can running and going. That's where those decisions are coming in day-to-day."

The deaths of another 11 people in Northern Ireland with Covid-19 were announced today, taking the toll to 1,141.

Another 607 new cases of the virus were also confirmed.

'Most difficult challenge' for Belfast health service - trust boss

Non-coronavirus patients risk serious harm or death because Northern Ireland's largest health trust is at full stretch, a senior administrator has said.

Since 24 October, Belfast has had more patients with Covid-19 than during the first surge of the pandemic.

Medical staff have been left in tears because of the decisions they are having to make to postpone treatment, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust said.

Dozens of surgeries have been cancelled but efforts are being made to ensure cancer patients receive procedures.

Trust chief executive Cathy Jack said: "There may be potential harm in those patients that do not get their surgeries in a timely way that we would want.

"It could affect the outcome and it could have an impact on their life, it could be life-limiting.

"That includes cardiac surgeries, major complex surgery, there will be some patients with cancer in that and no-one wants to delay anyone with cancer surgery or other surgery."

There are currently 130 Covid-19 patients being cared for by the trust.

Ms Jack said the trust is enduring "uncertain and dark" days, and added: "This is the most difficult challenge that health and social care has faced."

She said that while the trust has the capacity to treat all those virus patients, it comes at a cost.

"The cost is really those staff that would be looking after theatres and elective patients have been moved to critically ill."

Forty-four patients are critically ill in intensive care with Covid-19, 34 of whom are on ventilators.

Ms Jack said the trust is enduring "uncertain and dark" days, and added: "This is the most difficult challenge that health and social care has faced."

She said that while the trust has the capacity to treat all those virus patients, it comes at a cost.

"The cost is really those staff that would be looking after theatres and elective patients have been moved to critically ill."

Forty-four patients are critically ill in intensive care with Covid-19, 34 of whom are on ventilators.


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Ms Jack added: "I am asking clinical teams and managers to prioritise those most in need for surgery.

"That is a huge ask of them because we are making decisions about patients who most need the surgery, but there are many more that we know also need the surgery that we cannot at the minute operate on.

"There is a personal toll with that, there is a moral distress and I have witnessed first-hand some of my colleagues in tears about the decisions they are making."

She said she wants to be honest about the "harsh reality", and added: "We know everyone needs their surgery and we cannot actually operate on everyone we would like to at the moment.

"I would like to apologise to the patients and their families in the situation that we find ourselves in.

"It is not just minor or benign procedures, some are vitally important and they are very sick people that need to have surgery."

She urged the public to comply with the health guidance.

"If we have an ask as we approach Christmas, and I recognise that Christmas is a time for giving, I am really appealing to everyone that the best gift we could give to each other and to ourselves and staff that work in health and social care is for everyone to follow the rules.

"If we do this we could save many, many lives."

She also said some people are reluctant to come into hospital for procedures because they fear catching Covid-19.

The trust has had 826 staff isolating because of symptoms or family members with the disease.

It has used agency staff to help fill the gaps, but the chief executive said caring for the most critically ill poses challenges.