Almost eighty-percent of patients in Northern Ireland have waited more than nine weeks for a first appointment with a consultant.

The figures released also revealed the number increased slightly since last year. The target was 50%.

The Department of Health's quarterly report includes statistics up until the end of March and does not reflect the full impact of lockdown figures.

Health minister Robin Swann said performance had been under pressure for some time.

"The onslaught of coronavirus is something that we could never havecontemplated when we started the transformation of health and social care, and the truth is that today's statistics only cover the position to the end ofMarch, so simply provide an early indication of the full impact of the virus onwaiting times.

"I need to be very honest and signal that the figures for the next quarter,when published, will make even more depressing reading."

Almost four-fifths (79.1%, 242,864) of patients were waiting more than nineweeks for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment, compared with 78.4% (239,130) at December 31 and 74% (213,708) on March 31 last year, Department of Health statistics revealed.

"The truth is that our health service will never be the same again - the challenge for us is to make that reality an opportunity rather than a threat.

Robin Swann, Health Minister

Mr Swann said a quick fix was not a realistic expectation.

"Successfully attacking these waiting times will take time and money, and can only be achieved if additional long-term funding is made available.

"Such funding must be over and above that needed to run existing services. I have been very clear on this point since taking up post.

"Even with significant additional investment, the task of putting this rightwill be immensely challenging."

He said for the foreseeable future the NHS will have to plan around thecontinuing threat posed by Covid-19.

"This will severely constrain the capacity of our hospitals to scale upactivity - social distancing in hospitals means reduced numbers in waiting rooms and on theatre lists.

"We have started the process of rebuilding our health and social care system, and it is essential that our emphasis is 'rebuilding' rather than 'restoring.'

"The truth is that our health service will never be the same again - thechallenge for us is to make that reality an opportunity rather than a threat.

"The way we use services will have to change and innovations like virtualclinics will increasingly become the norm."

He said the system was "broken and struggling".

"We must capture the lessons and innovation from our response to coronavirus, and seek to build on the ingenuity and flexibility of the wonderful workforce across health and social care.

"As I have said before, it was only their dedication and commitment that heldthe service together before this epidemic struck and, given what we have asked of them though the recent weeks and how they have responded, we simply cannot ask any more of them.

"We must change. Opportunities exist to transform services for the better butwe need to be realistic about what is achievable in the short term."