Northern Ireland

600 hospital beds occupied by medically fit patients in Northern Ireland

Number is equivalent to closing an acute hospital

A hospital ward (Peter Byrne/PA)

More than 600 hospital beds in Northern Ireland were occupied by patients deemed fit for discharge on a single day last month, new figures have revealed.

On March 15, the five health trusts had a total of 628 patients ready to leave hospital - with a shortage of community places among the main problems.

Belfast Trust had the highest number (150) followed by the Southern Trust (149), Western Trust (148), Northern Trust 114) and South Eastern (67) with the lowest.

DUP MLA Diane Dodds, who uncovered the figures, said it was “a travesty” and similar to closing an acute hospital.

It is the latest snapshot of a health service in crisis, with the Health Minister Robin Swann stating last month that the risks of service breakdown were real and growing in several areas as he was “looking down the barrel of an inadequate budget” while need increases.

Robin Swann was health minister during the Covid-19 pandemic
(Oliver McVeigh/PA)

Northern Ireland consistently has the worst hospital waiting lists in the UK while last month cancer charities described the latest waiting times for patients as “astronomical”.

Budgetary pressures are also only likely to increase due to Northern Ireland’s ageing population as well as ongoing pay disputes with health workers.

There has also been criticism, that the new Executive has failed to come up with a plan to improve the health service more than two months after the return of Stormont.

Minister Swann said action to free up more hospital beds included a £70m support package for independent sector organisatons ahead of minimum wage increases.

This will include an increase in the regional funding rate for domiciliary care providers to £20.01 per hour, which is hoped to stabilise the market and recognise the “critical” role domiciliary care plays in supporting patient flow out of hospitals.

Other measures include a team of health officials to performance manage hospital discharges and a forum to encourage “whole system thinking” attended by senior Trust staff, the Ambulance Service and the Public Health Agency.

Particular problems were highlighted in the Western Trust, where problems finding domiciliary care affected 29 patients in “hard to source” parts of the Fermanagh & Omagh Council area.

Another 43 patients were waiting on a nursing home bed, including 27 for Elderly Mentally Infirm nursing.

“Many to these will require enhanced care at least initially, and Western HSC Trust has the lowest provision of these community beds in Northern Ireland,” Minister Swann said.

DUP MLA Diane Dodds said Northern Ireland had the worst waiting lists in the UK
(Niall Carson/PA)

DUP MLA Diane Dodds called the situation “an absolute travesty” after asking Health Minister Robin Swann for the figures.

She said the true number of patients having to “needlessly” stay on in hospital was likely to be higher, as some of the Trusts only included beds on their largest acute sites.

“More than 600 hospital beds being unavailable is the equivalent of keeping the doors locked to one of our large acute hospitals. It is an absolute travesty,” she said.

“It must be enormously frustrating for anyone awaiting admission to hospital for treatment to know there ought to be several hundred more beds available every day.”

Calling for the creation of a dedicated champion to address the problem, she said hospital staff were being forced to work “with one arm tied behind their back.”

“I struggle to understand, when the impact is so significant, why this hasn’t been prioritised more. It ought to be a key objective to free up more capacity and allow the system to operate optimally,” she said.

“The loss of beds impacts back onto all parts of the system including waiting times, Emergency Departments and getting admitted into hospital. It is poor care too for those patients being kept on in hospital unnecessarily.”

She continued: “If you pause to think what could be achieved over the course of a year with that number of beds, it is out of the question for this to be allowed to go on any longer”.