Northern Ireland news

A&E department could be forced to close in nightmare winter scenario, Health Minister Robin Swann warns

“We must guard against giving the impression that the Covid threat is fading or that the pandemic is petering out,” the health minister has said
Jonathan McCambridge, David Young and Rebecca Black, PA

A hospital emergency department could be forced to close in a “nightmare scenario” this winter as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.

The health minister described the north’s health service as already “under pressure as never before”, with staff “exhausted and burnt out”.

“And yet the pressures will increase further this winter,” he said.

Speaking ahead of the next Executive meeting tomorrow, Mr Swann said ministers “must remain careful” when it comes to easing restrictions.

“We must guard against giving the impression that the Covid threat is fading or that the pandemic is petering out,” he said.

“Carefully easing restrictions is one thing, a free-for-all is another.

“If all caution is dropped, then our health service crisis will deepen. It would in all likelihood be overwhelmed.

“In a nightmare scenario, it could even mean one of our emergency departments so overcrowded and patient safety so compromised they could have to close the doors, and that could lead to ambulances unable to respond to emergency 999 calls in the community.

“That’s what overwhelmed could look like, so we must not let that happen.

“As minister I will do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t happen, so I’d ask you to please support me and support your staff and get your jab.”

Last week it emerged that Mr Swann had asked the military for more support in hospitals. Today, he said he hopes to receive an answer “in the very near future”.

He announced plans to “use every last part” of the health service estate to maximise non-Covid elective capacity.

“An extensive programme of work has already been undertaken to identify Covid-light, or green sites,” he said.

“These sites, which will likely include the likes of Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast and the hospital and primary care complex in Omagh, will become designated elective surgery hubs where planned surgery will continue safely and sustainably throughout the winter.”

Mr Swann also announced a targeted workforce appeal, aimed at recently retired staff, to work at those sites.

The head of the Belfast health trust also addressed the media briefing at Stormont.

Dr Cathy Jack said the coronavirus pandemic is “far from over” and the health service is “besieged”.

She also said more than 70% of Covid-19 patients in intensive care have not been vaccinated.

Urging that those who are fit to be discharged are, she said: “Simply and starkly, we need the beds.

“As a chief executive I worry for the safety of our patients, service-users and staff, given the challenges ahead.

“If Covid is allowed to spread freely in society and the vaccination rate does not rise beyond 90% we will face a grim winter ahead.

“The best thing that we can do to protect the health service is to vaccinate the remaining 12% of the adult population.

“If this happened we would be in a much better and safer place. Every single jab counts and makes a difference.”

Earlier Mr Swann visited staff delivering Covid vaccinations at the “Jab & Go” clinic at the Balmoral Show.

There, he responded to comments by deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill earlier this week that Northern Ireland’s health service is about to “topple over” if immediate action is not taken.

Mr Swann said the situation had existed for years but had been made worse by the pressures of Covid.

“The pressures that we have seen due to non-recurrent funding and the pressures that we have seen on staff have been exacerbated due to Covid,” he said.

“We are seeing increased pressure on our ICU and that curtails us from doing some of the services and delivering some of the operations that we want to do so that is where we are seeing that pressure now intensify.”

He added: “We are heading into what is normal winter pressures, which always puts our health service under pressure, but that coupled with Covid will be a struggle so that is why we need to take decisions now to ease that pressure, and getting vaccinated is one of those.

“The more people who are vaccinated, the less people who will end up in hospital.”

Mr Swann joined Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and First Minister Paul Givan at the Covid vaccination tent, to speak to medical staff.

While there was a slow start, staff told the ministers that they expected the number of people attending for vaccination to pick up later in the day.

The Stormont Executive will discuss tomorrow further relaxations of Covid restrictions and plans for a winter surge of the virus.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said he expected ministers would take a “sensible approach”.

He added: “There are still people dying, unfortunately, as a consequence of Covid. We are coming into winter pressures which are always stressful on the health service.

“We have to protect the public’s health, but also the health service, and so we need to take the advice from the health people and have a sensible approach in terms of any relaxations which are proposed.

“I don’t see any major change coming on Thursday. To be quite honest, we are in a precarious position and we need to manage this carefully, because society is depending on us to make the right decisions at the right time.

“This isn’t about rushing into things to satisfy any particular business sector, this is about our responsibility to the entire society.”

Mr Murphy added: “This is never static, it changes very quickly, so we have to have all of the options on the table, but my understanding is that we are heading in the right direction.

“The more vaccination there is, the better for us and people should be encouraged to take up the vaccines.”

Four further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 and another 1,060 cases of the virus were confirmed by the Department of Health today.

There were 397 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 34 in intensive care.

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