Hospital operating theatres across Northern Ireland will be allocated to patients most in need during and after the virus surge, the Health Minister said.
People may be asked to travel longer distances to access surgeries they urgently require.
Cancer operations in Belfast had been postponed earlier this week because of pressure on the service which has seen health trusts cancelling elective procedures.
An even greater number of NHS staff will have to be redeployed in the days and weeks ahead to meet urgent and immediate needs of extremely ill patients, Robin Swann added.
He said: “I have approved the establishment of a new regional approach to ensure that any available theatre capacity across Northern Ireland is allocated for those patients most in need of surgery both during surge and as we come out of this surge.
“This will include seeking to fully maximise all available in-house Health and Social Care and independent sector capacity.
“Whilst this may mean that patients will need to travel further for their surgery I would rather see the highest priority treatments delivered elsewhere in Northern Ireland than not at all.”
The peak of the third wave is expected in the third week of January.
Hospital beds in Northern Ireland are almost full and non-Covid surgery has been delayed.
Extra wards and intensive care units are being created for pandemic patients as numbers admitted swell.
The number of hospital inpatients with the virus could rise to 1,000 in coming weeks.
Mr Swann added: “As this new mechanism settles in it is also my firm expectation that inter-trust transfers for the highest clinical priority cases will be facilitated.”
The minister said hospital staff were doing their absolute best to care for patients and that included treating the sickest quickest.
“This is not the case of prioritising one medical condition over another.”
The Royal College of Surgeons’ director in Northern Ireland welcomed the Health Minister’s announcement of much greater regional collaboration to keep urgent surgery, such as cancer and heart operations, going in the face of rising Covid-19 cases.
Mark Taylor said: “It will give hope to those patients already affected by cancellations.
“It’s vital we use capacity wherever we have it, including in the independent sector.”
He acknowledged some patients and medical staff may have to travel to other hospitals.
“By working together we can make sure those most urgently in need, for example those awaiting cancer or heart surgery, get treatment regardless of where they live.”
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