HEALTH Service activity across Northern Ireland will have to be significantly curtailed as resources are diverted to care for coronavirus patients, Minister Robin Swann said on Friday.
Affected services will include non-urgent outpatient appointments, day cases, inpatient and diagnostic work.
The process of scaling back provision will be phased in over the days and weeks ahead.
Due to increased pressures on GPs during the Covid-19 outbreak, the Department of Health and the British Medical Association have agreed measures to release additional capacity in General Practice.
This will mean that GPs will prioritise work to address Covid-19 cases and practices may reduce certain services.
Northern Ireland has moved from the containment to the delay phase for dealing with coronavirus.
As part of this new phase, members of the public are advised to stay at home for seven days if they have a fever and/or a new and persistent cough.
Mr Swann stated: “I want to be totally frank with the public about the scale of the challenge heading our way. Health services across the globe are coming under severe pressure. Ours is no different.
“We have now started freeing up resources in our health service to provide hospital care for the most seriously ill Covid-19 patients.”
Currently, only non-urgent outpatients, day case, inpatient and diagnostic services will be reduced.
Suspect cancer cases and other urgent care will continue, unless advised by the applicable Trust.
Venues for services may change as Trusts try to manage and centralise in order to attempt to maintain services.
For patients who need follow up as outpatients, Trusts are planning for greater use of telephone contact and other digital technology, where appropriate.
Patients will be contacted directly by Trusts with regard to any changes to already scheduled appointments.
All HSC Trusts will also be focusing sustained attention on ensuring patients who are medically well are promptly discharged from hospital, with appropriate care arrangements, to ensure hospital beds are available for any increase in admissions.
Trusts must also plan ahead for levels of sick leave amongst staff, which will inevitably impact on capacity.
Minister Swann continued: “I obviously want to apologise to everyone who will have appointments and treatments postponed. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable.
“This is undoubtedly the biggest public health challenge for at least a generation.
“It will require a Government-wide and society-wide response, not only caring for those who fall ill but also providing support to anyone impacted by self-isolation and any social distancing measures that are put in place in the weeks ahead.
“I am very grateful for the support that has been evident right around the Executive table.”
In conjunction with the Health and Social Care Board, HSC Trusts are finalising their surge plans for the predicted significant increases in Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland. These will be published next week.