Almost 2,000 people have travelled from Cork to Belfast on the ‘Belfast or Blind’ bus for cataract surgery since the service was set up by a Cork TD.
With waiting lists for cataract surgery on the rise in Ireland, West Cork TD Micheal Collins (Ind) set up the ‘Belfast or Blind’ initiative towards the end of 2017.
The initiative allowed people to travel from the south west to Northern Ireland for much-needed cataract surgery under the Cross Border Directive.
Speaking to The Echo as the service nears three years in operation, Mr Collins said almost 2,000 people have made use of the service.
He said a dedicated cataract theatre in Cork would have “saved the state millions”.
Under the Cross Border Directive, the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) pays around €1,450 per cataract operation, which is outsourced to private hospitals in Ireland or in Northern Ireland.
The NTPF paid €10 million for ophthalmology procedures in 2018, with the vast majority of this spent on cataracts.
“We’ve been going for the past few years and it’s still going well,” said Mr Collins.
“I have a long list of people who need urgent cataract surgery and want to travel on the bus.
“The problem now, is that there’s an extra layer in terms of Covid-19 testing,” he added.
“They have to be tested before they go up and there are also social distancing measures which mean we can’t take as much as we used to.”
Despite the limitations, Mr Collins revealed another bus will travel to Belfast on September 26.
“We had 21 people go up earlier this month, including a 36-year-old woman,” he said.
“A lot of people think it’s just the elderly in need of this surgery but it’s not.
“That 36-year-old woman was nearly blind in one eye,” he added.
“We had another woman in her thirties a few weeks ago as well.
“These are people who are in danger of losing their sight.
“I got a call from that woman recently and she couldn’t be happier now, she’s thrilled to have her sight.”
Deputy Collins expressed concern for the future of the Cross Border Directive and his Belfast or Blind bus in the event of a disorderly Brexit.
He said he will seek clarity on the issue in the coming days, ahead of the Brexit withdrawal.
“If it is affected, are people going to be left to go blind?” he asked.
“There is a serious worry that on December 31, this whole thing could collapse.
“If that happens, the government cannot allow people to go blind on its watch,” he said.