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Use of charity volunteers in Antrim hospital raises serious questions

The fact that an acute hospital in Northern Ireland has been forced to draft in volunteers from St John Ambulance to provide basic ward cover raises serious questions about the state of our health service.

It is widely acknowledged that this time of year places hospitals, in particular accident and emergency units, under severe pressure.

But it is also well documented that our healthcare system has been struggling to deal with a shortage of nurses and doctors, which has affected GP services, hospital cover and staffing levels in the residential care sector.

Trusts are using agency staff to plug gaps in their rotas, a move that comes at a high financial cost to the health service.

However, even with all the strains and challenges affecting our hospitals, it is extremely unusual for a trust to use a voluntary organisation to carry out basic nursing duties on its wards and in the emergency department.

The northern trust confirmed it had taken this step at Antrim Area Hospital due to the 'unprecedented demand' experienced on New Year's Eve.

According to the trust, the volunteers ''provided additional support to patients under the supervision of nursing and healthcare staff.''

While this situation is absolutely no reflection on St John Ambulance, the fact that senior hospital staff have been put in the position of having to call in charity volunteers to care for patients raises wider questions for health service management.

Given the severe staffing difficulties, did the trust consider declaring a major incident at Antrim which would have triggered a range of measures?

The problems clearly continued into the new year with the trust asking off-duty staff to come into work this week if possible.

Janice Smyth, head of the Royal College of Nursing, has expressed concerns about the staffing levels needed for the safe and effective care of patients as well as the pressure being placed on nurses who are on duty.

The health authorities must provide a full explanation about the situation at Antrim.

Meanwhile, the public can help under pressure hospitals by staying away from A&E unless it is absolutely necessary.

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