One in eight paramedics off sick or hurt as health service ‘pushed to breaking point'
AROUND one in eight paramedics were off work due to sick leave or injury during a two-month period this year, with an MLA claiming the health service is "being pushed to breaking point."
Figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request and seen by The Irish News show that on every weekend from St Patrick's Day until the end of May, an average of around 50 staff across Northern Ireland were unavailable.
On one weekend at the end of March, five paramedics were off sick in Enniskillen Ambulance Station alone.
Across the Ambulance Service, including administrative staff, more than 10 per cent were not in work over the two-month period.
The paramedic shortages led to private contractors and voluntary crews being forced to cover shifts, with only six ambulance stations across the north having a full response team available on one weekend in March.
Following shortages in July, the Ambulance Service predicted staffing levels at weekends would not return to normal for several months.
Ulster Unionist health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson said the figures were "deeply concerning".
"While there are many different reasons behind why individuals are on sick leave, what is abundantly clear is that the health service is being pushed to breaking point, which is clearly affecting the health and morale of the dedicated and highly professional staff.
"The difficulties in the local health service have been spiralling over the last 18 to 24 months, and now it appears the crisis is spreading to also engulf the Ambulance Service."
The Upper Bann MLA added: "I call on the minister to do everything she can to assist our healthcare professionals."
A spokeswoman for the Ambulance Service said several measures were in place for staff, including a health and wellbeing strategic group, counselling services and a pilot mental health scheme.
"NIAS takes seriously its responsibilities in relation to the health and wellbeing of our staff, particularly as we are aware of the stressful environments in which our frontline and support staff operate.
"Based on hours lost, the absence level within the Ambulance Service for 2015/16 was 10.43% of planned hours.
"We have on occasion had reason to engage voluntary and private ambulance services who will be tasked to non-emergency work or, where appropriate, to provide transport to hospital following patient assessment by NIAS clinical staff."
The NIAS spokeswoman added: "The Trust is undertaking a review of its attendance management procedure and associated policies to ensure that we support staff during absence and to prepare them for a manageable return to work."