Northern Ireland news

Hospital's use of St John Ambulance `unbelievable' says nursing union

The understaffed Antrim Area Hospital called in St John Ambulance volunteers
Seanín Graham

AN overstretched hospital's use of St John ambulance volunteers to provide cover has been branded "unbelievable" by a leading nursing union.

Managers at Antrim Area hospital resorted to the drastic measure due to severe staff shortages and a spike in A&E demand on December 31.

St John staff were deployed across wards as well as the casualty department, with trust chiefs describing the volume of patients as "unprecedented".

Hospitals are coming under immense pressure at the same time as health officials are urging people to get vaccinated "without delay" following several deaths in Ireland linked to 'Aussie flu'.

Janice Smyth, head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it was the first time charity volunteers had ever been employed to carry out basic nursing duties in any of the north's hospitals. She warned the development exposed the "gross shortage" of nurses in the health service.

Ms Smyth said she was aware the trust's most senior nurses "did not take the decision lightly" but raised concerns they were placed in a position where they forced to use charity workers.

"While I support the decision of the director of nursing this development raises many issues. St John staff are not registered nurses and their employment put additional pressure on nurses who were already there that evening as a higher degree of supervision would have been required.

"There are also safeguarding concerns...however, I am aware that the directors of nursing were left with no choice. But is unbelievable it has come to this. We know that many shifts are going unfilled and are worried about levels of staffing for safe and effective care."

Such is the extent of staffing shortages that Northern Trust chiefs took the took the unusual step on Monday of appealing on social media for off-duty nurses and healthcare assistants to come to work.

Some hospitals across Britain and Northern Ireland have declared themselves at the most severe pressure level while leading medics are starting to report that Australasian flu is beginning to appear. The deadly strain which has spread to Ireland and Britain was last year blamed for one of Australia's worst ever flu outbreaks.

The Health Service Executive in the Republic said a "small number" of people have died in the last two weeks after contracting the strain.

In the north, the Public Health Agency (PHA) said there has been one death from influenza in recent weeks – the first of the current flu season – although it was unable to confirm the strain involved.

Dr Lorraine Doherty, assistant director of public health at PHA, urged those eligible for the free flu vaccination to get it without delay.

"Getting the free flu vaccine is the single most important thing you can do to help protect yourself against flu," she said.

"With high levels of flu activity in Australia during their winter, and the potential for similar here, it is more important than ever that everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated."

 An overstretched hospital used St John ambulance volunteers to provide cover. Managers at Antrim Area hospital resorted to the drastic measure due to severe staff shortages and a spike in A&E demand on December 31. Ian Knox cartoon.

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