Northern Ireland news

Northern Ireland health service facing ‘most difficult winter ever'

Health Minister Robin Swann said the health system would be taking an integrated approach to surge and winter planning
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Northern Ireland’s health service is facing its most difficult winter ever, Robin Swann has warned.

The health minister has delivered an urgent written statement to the Assembly, detailing winter and Covid surge delivery plans in local health trusts.

Modelling carried out by the trusts has suggested there will be a shortfall in acute bed capacity in hospitals over the winter months.

The minister has said mitigating actions would include the provision for 586 new acute hospital beds and a reduction in the delivery of elective care.

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Elective surgery hubs are to be created to ensure planned operations will continue through the winter.

Mr Swann said: “Make no mistake, we are most likely facing into the most difficult winter ever experienced by the HSC (health and social care) system.

“In fact, the current context underlines the challenges ahead. Over this summer and into the autumn, the Northern Ireland hospital system has consistently been operating above capacity, with many patients waiting on trollies for admission.

“This situation is unheard of during the summer months and is an indication of the scale of unscheduled pressures likely facing the HSC system this winter.”

Mr Swann said the health system would be taking an integrated approach to surge and winter planning.

He added: “Services will continue to be delivered across the whole of our health system from primary care, to secondary care and social care. Surge and winter planning has been informed by modelling of unscheduled pressures, Covid-19 and other likely pressures such as the winter flu.

“The trust plans include detailed acute bed modelling, which is underpinned by a number of assumptions in relation to unscheduled pressures and Covid-19.

“The trusts’ modelling does suggest a shortfall in acute bed capacity this winter. This is not a surprise given the severe level of unscheduled pressures already impacting the system.

“Importantly, the trusts will take a number of mitigating actions to create further acute bed capacity. These actions vary across the trusts but include increasing the bed stock; improving discharge and flow; and reducing delivery of elective care.

“In total, the trusts have identified options to create additional acute bed capacity of 586 beds in advance of this winter.”

The minister said that hospital emergency departments across Northern Ireland are currently operating significantly above capacity.

He said: “The HSCB (Health and Social Care Board) is currently working collaboratively with the Public Health Agency, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and the five provider trusts to improve waiting times at our emergency departments, enhance flows through the system and facilitate timely discharge.”

The minister said he was determined that the health service would deliver as many planned surgeries as possible.

He said: “An extensive programme of work has already been undertaken to identify Covid light, or ‘green sites’, where designated elective surgery hubs will continue planned surgery safely and sustainably throughout the winter.

“In order for these hubs to work effectively, they will need to be adequately staffed. I have therefore launched a targeted workforce appeal, aimed specifically at those who have recently left the health service, including through retirement.

“To date, the response has been excellent, with a total of 845 applications.

“The new ‘green sites’ will be in addition to Belfast City Hospital and Lagan Valley Hospital which remain as elective ‘green’ sites.”

Mr Swann concluded: “I would also appeal to all our citizens to use services appropriately and be patient with HSC staff as they work through this most difficult of periods.

“We are not without hope in this situation. We can get through this winter if we, as a society, make a great collective effort and rally behind our health workers.”

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