LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May apologized on Thursday to tens of thousands of patients whose operations were canceled to free up staff and beds to deal with emergency patients.
Earlier this week, officials at the National Health Service (NHS) in England recommended that hospitals cancel all non-urgent appointments and operations until next month.
Officials say this means about 50,000 operations may be postponed.
"I know it is difficult, I know it is frustrating, I know it is disappointing for people and I apologize," May told Sky News after visiting a hospital outside London.
A flu outbreak, colder weather and high levels of respiratory illnesses have put hospitals in England under strain with many operating at or near full capacity, with long waits for treatment in emergency rooms.
The issue is potentially damaging for May, already weakened after losing a parliamentary majority in last year's election and struggling to pacify her deeply divided party as she navigates the final year of Brexit negotiations.
The NHS, which delivers free care for all and accounts for a third of government spending on public services, is typically one of the most important issues for voters during elections and one which is often regarded as a weakness for May's Conservative party.
(Reporting By Andrew MacAskill; editing by Stephen Addison)