Northern Ireland news

North Belfast left without 999 ambulance crews on Sunday night during staffing crisis

Severe gaps in rotas led to the entire service being 20 crews down over the weekend - equating to a quarter of its workforce
Seanín Graham

CHRONIC staffing shortages in the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service left north Belfast without an emergency overnight crew on Sunday night.

The Irish News has learned that Ardoyne station was not manned between 8pm on Sunday evening and 8am on Monday morning - in what sources say is an "exceptional" development and comes days after serious violence broke out in the nearby New Lodge area, with two people stabbed following a controversial bonfire.

Severe gaps in rotas led to the entire service being 20 crews down over the weekend - equating to a quarter of its workforce - and turning to their colleagues in the Republic for support as a contingency on Friday and Saturday.

An ambulance spokesman said that last night's "predicted" cover was also depleted, with "35 available crews against 47 planned crews".

"We expect the situation to improve as the week develops.The (cover)... be supplemented by additional Voluntary Ambulance Crews and Private Ambulance Service crews, who will deal with less urgent calls," he said.

He also confirmed that north Belfast was particularly affected at the weekend: "Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) can confirm that no crews were available to work out of Ardoyne station on the nightshift on Sunday 11 August. Ambulance response would have been provided by the nearest available and appropriate ambulance."

In April, paramedics privately raised concerns about less qualified support staff being used to man 999 vehicles due to the staffing crisis.

Known as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), these workers are unable to administer some life-saving treatment, including adrenalin to a cardiac arrest patient, and 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.

The Irish News asked NIAS if the EMS support workers had been used over the weekend to replace paramedics. A spokesman confirmed this had happened twice.

"Figures for double EMT crews in Belfast indicate that there was one double EMT crew operating out of Broadway on Friday's dayshift and another on Friday's night shift," he said.

He added: "NIAS will target its emergency crews towards the most seriously and potentially life-threatening calls. NIAS would take this opportunity to apologise for delays that people may endure and would encourage those patients with less serious conditions to consider self-treatment or self referral to ED, where appropriate."

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.

The service's chief executive, Michael Bloomfield, also apologised and admitted they had "for too long relied on the goodwill of staff to cover shift vacancies on an overtime basis".

He said the position was "unsustainable"

"Earlier this year we consulted on a proposed new clinical response model, which, if approved together with the associated resources required for its implementation, will result in a very significant increase in the NIAS workforce," Mr Bloomfield said.

"The implementation of these changes will take time and I am aware that the challenges we have faced this weekend will continue, but hopefully on a reduced scale as we see the impact of additional staff currently being recruited and trained. By the end of this year we will have more than 100 extra staff, Paramedics and EMTs, on the frontline.

"It is only by looking after our staff that we will be able to look after our patients and I will ensure this continues to be our top priority."

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