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Northern Ireland's neurosurgery service is in crisis after the regional centre, the Royal Victoria Hospital, instructed GPs to cease referrals until next spring, except in emergency cases.

The Royal Group's medical director, Dr Ian Carson, wrote to GPs as the province's health minister, Bairbre De Brun, faced questioning from the Northern Ireland Assembly's health committee about underfunding throughout the service.More than 500 neurosurgery patients have had their operations postponed because of a shortage of nurses and anaesthetists at the Belfast hospital.

Dr Carson said his letter was aimed at avoiding raised expectations. 'This decision has not been taken lightly, ' he said.

'However, it was felt to be more honest and realistic for patients - rather than adding them to an ever increasing waiting list and giving the impression that they would soon receive surgery when, for the foreseeable future, this will not be possible.

'We regret having to take this decision but, in reaching it, our neurosurgeons and the commissioners in the health boards. . . feel it is preferable to raising expectations which cannot be met.'

New nurses have been recruited to the specialty, though not all have the experience needed for working in theatre. Efforts are continuing to recruit anaesthetists.

A spokesperson paid tribute to staff efforts throughout the hospital. 'This is yet another example of an under-funded and overstretched health service, ' she said.

Chair of the assembly's health committee Dr Joe Hendron - a Belfast GP - claimed that evidence of a 'grossly under-funded' health service comes daily.

'The health service just seems to be crumbling, ' he said. 'Northern Ireland is way behind Britain in the service offered.'

Meanwhile, the board of Causeway trust has expressed seious concern about 'gridlock' at its new£55m hospital caused by a 10 per cent rise in emergency admissions, combined with delayed discharges. Chief executive Bill Tweed described 'a scenario of severe rationing'.