Emergency care pressure `at mid winter levels' as ambulance service and A&E department sound alarm
EMERGENCY care in Northern Ireland is under acute strain with an A&E department and the ambulance service today sounding warnings to patients.
Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has been operating at the highest level of its emergency escalation plan "for weeks" according to paramedics, as doctors warned pressures on the health service are at winter levels.
The level four footing means the service is operating at `full capacity' and does not believe it is able to perform all its functions.
Its plan helps paramedics manage their response to emergency calls and treatment.
In practice this means long waits for patients.
News of ambulance service difficulties came the same day the Ulster Hospital's Emergency Department warned it is "experiencing significant pressures, similar to those expected in mid-winter".
A spokeswoman admitted there are "some patients waiting a very long time to be admitted to an inpatient bed".
"We regret any delay in patients being treated, but priority is always given to those with life-threatening and emergency conditions."
It urged anyone with non-emergency conditions to "consider other options of care", pointing them in the direction of the NI Direct website: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/how-use-your-health-services.
It also asked patients and families to help medics free up beds for new cases.
"Please work with us when you or your family member is medically fit for discharge, to allow us to treat as many patients as possible."
The South Eastern Trust said its staff had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure patients receive the highest quality of care during "these significant pressures, and we would like to pay tribute to them for their hard work".
"Please try and stay safe and help reduce demand on our emergency services," it said.
"Those requiring repeat prescriptions ahead of the bank holiday weekend should contact their GP directly to arrange."
Existing pressures at casualty units have been cited as an aggravating factor for the ambulance service, with lengthy handovers tying up ambulances and paramedics, with holiday leave and "a significant level of sickness" also alleged to have exacerbated problems.
The BBC reported that some non-emergency patients were being asked to make their own way to hospital so ambulances could attend a more urgent call.
The NIAS said it "needs to protect our emergency response for those calling with immediately life threatening and serious conditions".
It warned those who call with less serious conditions will potentially face lengthy delays while waiting for an ambulance response and, for that, we would like to apologise in advance".
"As we face into a bank holiday weekend NIAS anticipates the pressure on the service will not reduce and would ask that, before calling 999, the public consider if other care options are available to them, including whether their journey to hospital, physically, requires ambulance transport."