South Australia’s opposition leader says “people will die” because of the state government’s alleged mismanagement of the public health system and failure to prepare the state for winter.

Liberal leader David Speirs said Premier Peter Malinauskas had failed to ensure South Australians were receiving top quality healthcare after a system-wide code yellow — or internal emergency — was declared on Thursday afternoon.

One surgeon has expressed disappointment in the cancellation of his patients’ elective surgeries – some who trekked hours from regional locations and had spent days prepping for colonoscopies.

The South Australian health department blamed an influx of COVID-19 and flu patients but remained tight-lipped when probed for more information on Thursday afternoon.

Mr Speirs was concerned about the lack of transparency around the issue and claimed SA Health chief executive Dr Robyn Lawrence was “not up for the job”.

Health Minister Chris Picton told the ABC he was “always happy to answer people’s questions” and apologised to affected patients.

He said the health system had staff that had also fallen ill, but rejected that there were staff shortage issues.

Chris Picton says the health department will work to reschedule surgeries as soon as possible. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

Mr Picton also defended Dr Lawrence and called Mr Speirs’ comment an “outrageous slur”.

“He should retract that immediately, Dr Lawrence is an outstanding public servant … and for David Speirs to say that I think it’s completely gutless for him to attack a public servant,” Mr Picton said.

‘Disaster for our health system’

Mr Speirs said he was extremely worried for patients and that people were “scared” to call an ambulance because they may be ramped for hours.

“There’s no doubt people will die as a consequence of this and that is a very scary prospect,” Mr Speirs said.

He blamed Mr Malinauskas for the health “disaster” and said he “conned South Australians” into believing he had a silver bullet.

He said it was heartbreaking for patients who had had elective surgeries cancelled and said the government has not adequately prepared for this year’s flu season.

“It’s going to be a dreadful winter for South Australia’s hospitals,” he said.

Patients inconvenienced

Port Lincoln surgeon Dr Rufus McLeay said he was confused at how the cancelling of his colonoscopy and endoscopy lists would help alleviate the pressure on the health system.

He said some of his patients had travelled hours to have their surgeries and would be disappointed to hear the news.

“To have a colonoscopy, you have to take a bowel prep and the bowel prep starts two days before the colonoscopy actually takes place,” Dr McLeay said.

“What it means for my patients is that they’re going to have their procedures cancelled.”

Port Lincoln doctor Rufus McLeay says some patients had travelled hours for surgeries to be cancelled.(Supplied)

Elective surgeries cancelled 

Mr Picton said the health department would take the matter day by day, but expected elective surgeries to be cancelled well into next week.

“For any patient who is impacted by a postponement of their elective surgery, we’d of course apologise to them,” he said. 

“And I hope that they’d understand that this is because of the significant number of influx of emergency patients that we’re seeing, and we’ll work to reschedule their surgery as soon as possible.”

SA Health expects elective surgeries to be cancelled well into next week.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

He said this was a result of a significant underinvestment over decades in building additional beds that the current government now had to play catch-up with.

Mr Picton said the government was “absolutely focused” on investing in the SA health system.

When asked if he had done enough to prepare the state for winter, Mr Picton said: “we have put in place every possible hospital bed and doctor and nurse that we can, but we know we need more and that’s why we’re building more hospital beds across the system”.

Mr Picton would not reveal what health funding would be distributed in next week’s state budget but said the government would continue to invest in the health system.

Robyn Lawrence says an influx of respiratory illnesses is putting pressure on the hospital system. (ABC News: Manny Tesconi)

In a statement, Dr Lawrence said hospitals were experiencing significant demand resulting in “very busy” emergency departments.

“To manage the demand, our local hospital networks have opened all available hospital beds, maximised out of hospital care options and paused all elective surgery except Category 1 and Paediatric urgent Category 2 in metropolitan and country hospitals,” she said.

“Many hospitals are also being impacted by the large amount of respiratory illness in our community, in particular COVID and flu, which is also creating staff shortages.

“We currently have more than 140 patients in hospital with COVID and flu, and our metropolitan hospitals have reported around 270 staff currently off sick with COVID.”