MANAGERS at a Co Antrim hospital were forced to call in St John Ambulance volunteers to provide basic ward cover on New Year's Eve.
It is understood that Antrim Area Hospital resorted to the measure for the first time at it struggled across a number of its wards and A&E department.
Concerns about the inexperience of the charity volunteers led to some healthcare workers making complaints to bosses.
A spokeswoman for the Northern health trust last night confirmed that some volunteers did help healthcare staff.
"Due to the unprecedented demand in Antrim Area Hospital yesterday evening, voluntary organisations whom the trust contracts with provided additional support to patients under the supervision of nursing and healthcare staff," she said.
"This move was taken as a direct response to the high numbers of patients in the emergency department and was most welcomed by staff."
One employee last night told The Irish News they observed some St John Ambulance staff providing "basic nursing care" such as personal care to patients and documenting observations, including temperature readings and fluid intake.
"St John's are a pre-hospital care organisation, they are not qualified to be on wards," she said.
"A number of staff were worried about the fact they had been brought in because of the severe short staffing. Appropriate protocols should have been followed such as a greater reliance on bank staff - but this didn't happen.
"We went to a manager but nothing seemed to happen... this is the worst winter I have ever seen in terms of pressures."
The development comes as the Health and Social Care Board, which oversees the north's health service, prepares to publish figures today on the problems experienced across A&E hospital departments over the holiday period.
All five press offices in the health trusts were unable to provide the figures yesterday about their respective hospitals, which were being 'co-ordinated' by the Board.
Over the past week, there have been repeated warnings by trusts about spiralling delays in A&E departments and appeals to the public to attend only in emergencies.
Last Thursday evening, an A&E consultant at the Ulster hospital in Dundonald took the unusual step of revealing on social media there were more than 200 'mostly elderly' patients who had spent more than 12 hours on A&E trolleys over the previous 24 hours across the north's hospitals.
Dr Sean McGovern, who is also the vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine NI, posted his comments on Twitter and referenced an article raising concerns about overcrowding in emergency departments.
The crisis comes a year after it emerged a pensioner was forced to endure a 40-hour trolley in Antrim Area hospital - in what believed to be one of worst delays in the entire NHS last year.
The Irish News revealed the record wait took place last January when the troubled unit tackled a big spike in attendances among the elderly.
It also emerged that the number of patients stuck for more than 12 hours on trolleys across the north's hospitals rose by a staggering 230 per cent in just one year - with the Northern trust worst hit.
Official figures show that 1,815 patients faced massive delays in January 2017, compared with 544 on the same period the previous year.