It would be “a sad day for Northern Ireland” if money earmarked for health was handed back to the Treasury, the Royal College of Surgeons has said.
At the last count nearly 100,000 people were waiting to be admitted to hospital and the pandemic has exacerbated waiting lists, the RCS added.
Inability to roll over funds into the next financial year forced the NHS to return £90 million to Stormont’s central pot for reallocation between departments in the midst of the coronavirus emergency.
Mark Taylor, Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said: “It would be a sad day for Northern Ireland and our Government if we had to hand back much-needed money when our situation is so dire.
“Patients expect us to take every opportunity we can to keep urgent surgery going during these difficult times and we want to do exactly just that.”
The RCS highlighted solutions including stronger access to the independent sector and “equitable” allocation of nursing, theatre and anaesthetic staff.
College representatives also explained, during a meeting with Health Minister Robin Swann, the challenges staff were facing getting theatre space and a full surgical team for urgent and time-dependent operations.
Mr Taylor added: “We know that the Executive are seeking flexibility from the Treasury to enable Stormont to roll money over to the next financial year and we sincerely hope they are successful, because our waiting lists are horrendous.”
At the last count, Northern Ireland had more than 327,000 patients waiting for their first outpatient appointment with a consultant, while nearly 100,000 were awaiting admission to hospital.
The latest official waiting list figures are due out next month and surgeons expect them to be worse.
Mr Taylor said Northern Ireland already had a backlog of surgery, adding: “This legacy of waiting lists and system failures is nothing new.
“The challenge of fixing Northern Ireland’s health service was already in the pipeline before the pandemic.
“However we must act now. We have to try and get surgery going again, and give patients hope.”
Mr Swann said a few weeks ago that operations will take place for those most in need when available hospital capacity becomes available, and surgeons have welcomed the regional approach.
He said if he had flexibility to roll his budget into next year he could have used unspent money for the health service five times over.