The next two months of lockdown will be essential to keep NHS Grampian afloat, as “exhausted” staff work to treat patients put on hold in the pandemic.
Exasperated business bosses and politicians cried foul when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the north-east would remain under Level 4 restrictions until the end of April.
But deputy chief officer of acute services at the north-east health board, Cameron Matthew, warned the window was needed to undo some of the damage the pandemic has done.
Concerns about its operations backlog were heard at Holyrood earlier this week.
He said: “Our staff is stretched, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary is stretched and every day we look at the numbers and plan when we can step down the next ward.
“If we get it back down it will allow us to start planning at what we need to do for planned care, for example, surgery and orthopaedics, as we have not really got a lot of that going on just now other than time-critical cancer services in highly critical patients.
“What we can’t do is push the staff too much. They have been at this for a year and are pretty knackered.
“What we wouldn’t want to do is push them when they are not ready to go back to everything but there are lots of people really champing at the bit to get back to their normal job and what they want to do – make people better.”
Government ministers do not plan to relax the blanket Level 4 restrictions on the mainland until April 26, prompting outrage and disappointment from business bosses desperate to get back to trade – especially in the north-east where the numbers are lower.
Over the last week, the Covid rate in Aberdeen was 25.8 per 100,000 people, the lowest of any local authority area on the mainland.
From the very worst of the pandemic when there were seven wards at ARI, there is now only one.
Even still, the number of new infections is still comparable to mid-November, just weeks before a new peak plummeted the country back into lockdown.
Wards of Covid-negative patients still in recovery, too frail to leave hospital, remain.
Drops in the numbers of people in intensive care are plateauing, with 18 patients there on Thursday night – the majority of them under the age of 60.
With the risk any restriction slackening might result in more people catching the virus, the medical experts warn the pending and vital catch-up would be at risk.
Three Covid-less days in September encouraged NHS Grampian bosses to launch a short-stay unit to catch up on the backlog – but it lasted only two weeks as figures spiked.
Bosses are optimistic it could be relaunched in the coming weeks.
Mr Matthew added: “We have essentially slowed ourselves down for the best part of a year – it was around March 23 we were advised to stop activity.
“It’s going to take us a long time to get back to normal and we are going to have to gather the support of the citizens and say we can’t get back to the speed we were doing things before because staff are exhausted.
“And also because we will be living with Covid – if we have to continue wearing PPE and remain physically distanced on wards we will not have the same number of beds as we used to.”
It comes as new stats show one in four people in the north-east has received at least their first dose of a Covid vaccine.
So far more than 151,000 jabs have been administered in the north-east, which corresponds to 25.8% of the population.
Of those, 71,239 have been given to people from Aberdeenshire, almost 53,000 in Aberdeen and around 27,100 in Moray.
Last week 28,416 people in the region received their first dose, down around 15,000 on the previous week.
This drop has been linked to a move to provide a second dose of vaccine to residents in care homes, as well as a reduction in the amount of vaccine currently available.
The number of jabs administered in Aberdeen hit the lowest number for six weeks on Sunday, when just two people received a dose. In Aberdeenshire, only 17 doses were administered on that day.
In terms of raw numbers of vaccinations, NHS Grampian has administered the fourth-highest number of jabs.
However, when looking at the percentage of the population reached, the north-east is lagging behind – with only two health boards, Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Lothian, reaching a smaller portion of the population of its area.
Figures also revealed a further three people across the north-east died in the past day after testing positive for Covid.
Two of those were from Aberdeenshire and one from Aberdeen.
A further 19 people across the north-east tested positive for Covid.
The latest data from the Scottish Government show NHS Grampian has recorded 13,422 positive results since the pandemic began in March.