Northern Ireland news

Ambulance staff shortages left Belfast without overnight paramedic cover

Serious staff shortages are impacting on the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service
Seanín Graham

CHRONIC staffing shortages in the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service left the entire city of Belfast without paramedic overnight cover on a Saturday night last month.

Ambulance chiefs have admitted they only had four of the required seven emergency crews on the night shift on April 26 - but this dropped to just three after midnight.

None of those on duty from 2.30am onwards were qualified paramedics.

Instead, 999 vehicles were staffed by support workers known as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) who are unable to administer some life-saving treatment, including adrenalin to a cardiac arrest patient.

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While EMTs usually act as back-up to paramedics as part of two-person crew on ambulances, they are not qualified to give morphine or intravenous paracetamol. They also are not allowed to perform 'intubation' (in which a tube is inserted into the patient's windpipe to enable them to breathe).

Sources last night said that the lack of cover was "exceptional" and warned that reduced staffing had dropped to "dangerous levels".

"This is the worst it's ever been. We are constantly short-staffed and depending on voluntary ambulances like St John's to help us out. We are supposed to be a professional service that leads the way - instead we're doing this on a wing and prayer and relying on good will. Would this happen with the police or fire service?" a staff member asked.

"Our cover is always worse at weekends but I can never remember a time in the past 25 years that we'd had no paramedics in the city overnight. The unions warned management about this two years ago...how did they allow it to get into this mess?"

In a statement, the chief executive of the Ambulance service, Michael Bloomfield said increased demand for its services had not been matched with investment in jobs.

"It is a source of regret to me whenever ambulance cover is depleted due to lack of available resources and the potential impact this may have on the community we serve," he said.

Mr Bloomfield, who came into post last March after almost a decade at the Health and Social Care Board, confirmed there were 38 empty posts they were trying to fill.

Earlier this year, ambulance chiefs travelled to England to attempt to recruit extra staff.

However, a pay discrepancy means that the north's paramedics, like nurses, are paid less than many of their NHS counterparts.

Mr Bloomfield said: "We are working to address the issue and fill existing vacancies with ongoing regional recruitments and training. A paramedic foundation degree programme commenced in January 2019 in partnership with Ulster University and 48 students are expected to qualify in November 2019.

"In addition 48 EMTs are due to complete their training and become operational later this month. Further training programmes are planned to start later this year."

The ambulance chief added that a recent review had identified that an additional 120 paramedics were required to implement a new 'Clinical Response Model' to "deliver full benefits" by 2021/22.

"I would like to express my gratitude to those staff, on the frontline and in ambulance control, who continue to work tirelessly to ensure that an ambulance response is provided to those who have an immediate and life-threatening need," he said.

A NIAS spokesman said the reduced overnight cover on April 26/27 was linked to staff shortages, holiday leave and sickness absence.

Contingency plans were introduced on the night, with seven voluntary and private ambulance crews hired to provide extra night shift cover.

"These (services) are used by ambulance control to deal with lower acuity calls in order to keep our Emergency Crews free for more serious, life threatening calls," he said.

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