Hospital's use of volunteers to help patients is 'dangerous,' says nursing union
Using volunteers to help patients of Northern Ireland's crisis-hit health service is "dangerous", a union said.
The Royal College of Nursing said it was an unprecedented move.
Its Northern Ireland director Janice Smyth said: "This is heading only in one direction and in the absence of a workforce plan this is highly dangerous.
"Once broken it is not easily fixed."
She said the volunteers' role was limited to largely sitting with patients while they awaited attention and they had to be accompanied by registered nurses.
She said there were 1,500 nursing vacancies waiting to be filled, and they did not even have the staff to support the beds they had, never mind those waiting on trolleys during peak times like January.
"It is an unprecedented step and it is another sign our health and social care system is in crisis.
"We don't have enough nursing staff."
She said Antrim Hospital's director of nursing was left with an extremely difficult decision before calling on St John Ambulance.
"It was the least worst decision, people needing care, lots of trolleys and extra patients in wards."
St John Ambulance said its people were well-trained and such work was what it existed for.
A spokeswoman said its volunteers' actions on New Year's Eve were "nothing spectacular" and it was made clear across the UK that they attended emergency units to give support.
"The support is limited, it really is supporting patients, making tea and keeping them company."
Meanwhile, a social media poster said she waited many hours at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast's emergency department with an 81-year-old who had suffered a minor stroke-type event.
It was allegedly a prolonged period before the patient was given a trolley to sleep on.
Sinn Fein health spokesman Pat Sheehan said some measures taken by senior health staff to plug the gaps were not sustainable.
"The huge commitment and dedication shown by HSC (Health and Social Care) staff, particularly over this challenging holiday period, must be recognised and appreciated.
"Staff have again shown they are the HSC's greatest asset.
"A workforce strategy is needed to begin to address existing staff shortages and to ensure we retain the existing staff who continue to deliver vital health services under extremely challenging situations."
DUP Assembly member Peter Weir highlighted the absence of devolved government at Stormont.
"On her first day as health minister Michelle O'Neill stressed the priority she placed on reforming our health service to deliver for patients.
"Today however the former health minister plays the role of a disinterested observer as our health service faces major pressures, and our health service staff work tirelessly to deliver the very best service to the public."