The day before lockdown began Jennifer Rouse was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and recommended for surgery.

But district health boards had shut down theatres, cancelling elective surgeries and specialist appointments, in preparation for the fight against the spread of coronavirus and the predicted onslaught of Covid-19 patients.

It left Rouse, a 66-year-old pensioner who would normally have gone on a six-to-eight week waiting list for the surgery, in limbo.

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"Over the phone it was explained that because of the Covid-19 issue, no private or public non-urgent breast surgeries were being done in Northland and no information was available as to when this service might be resumed," Rouse said. "It was a huge shock."

A former hospitality owner who lives on a yacht in Whāngārei, Rouse was unsure what impact Covid-19 would have on "non-urgent" surgeries and was told she could face up to six months waiting.

She wrote to several MPs, including Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and National MP in Whāngārei Dr Shane Reti, about her predicament.

On March 30 Reti responded, saying he had been contacted by many others in similar situations including the Northland Breast Cancer Support Trust.

Reti said the spread of Covid-19 in hospitals overseas was concerning and there was a risk being a patient in hospital.

He said he would lobby for "high priority attention" for Northland women with breast cancer when the lockdown lifted.

"This is something that should reasonably have precedence over an elective hip or other non-cancerous surgery."

Rouse decided she could not wait when it was unknown how long the wait would be.

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She dipped into her meagre savings, negotiated a discounted price, and went private for the surgery in Auckland. It cost her $15,000.

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The radiotherapy she needs remains on hold, and Rouse is now faced with trying to prove her eligibility to Northland District Health Board.

"I was born in England and have an Australian passport but I've lived in New Zealand for many years [on and off]."

Rouse complained to Health and Disability Commissioner Anthony Hill over the situation which has left her with little savings and no way to recoup the money.

"Cancer treatment is not elective. I have fallen through the cracks and feel very let down by the system."

Yesterday the Herald revealed Hill had written to Minister of Health David Clark over cases like Rouse's, warning that patient lives were at risk if elective surgeries and specialist appointments continued to be referred back to GPs.

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Hill told the Herald his office had received 50 complaints related to coronavirus, including cancelled and delayed treatment.

He said the consequences would be particularly serious for patients where early diagnosis and treatment was key to survival, including cancer and coronary disease.

Northland DHB said its surgical waiting lists had been impacted by the reduction in surgeries but it continued to operate on urgent cancer cases.

"It is currently too early to quantify the length of delays patients may face," a spokeswoman said.

"This is in part due to the uncertainty regarding the length of the ongoing impact the Covid-19 response will have on the health system and access."

She said DHBs were working through alternatives to accelerate activity as the Covid-19 response de-escalated.

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On Thursday director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told media that under alert level 3, which comes into effect on Tuesday, some planned care including elective surgeries and radiology will be provided.

Clark said the effect on the delivery of other health services by the Covid-19 response had been a concern from the beginning.

He was receiving regular updates on how the situation was affecting the number of surgeries and other appointments, including first specialist assessments, follow-ups, minor procedures, and diagnostic scans, being performed in hospitals and other DHB facilities.

"There is work under way by the ministry and DHBs to ensure those New Zealanders who've had surgery and other treatment delayed receive the care they need as soon as possible as we move down alert levels. I expect to have more to say on this soon."

A Ministry of Health spokeswoman said DHBs had been trying to provide outpatient services in a non-contact environment to help minimise any risk of Covid-19 transmission, prioritising acute care and urgent planned care surgery, and deferring some cases.

She said the ministry was collecting data from DHBs about the number of inpatient and outpatient cases deferred or cancelled.

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"This information is being compiled but it is too early to say how many surgeries will be affected.

"The ministry will continue working with DHBs to develop recovery plans and implement strategies to address any increased waitlists due to the Covid-19 outbreak."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website