Northern Ireland

Health leaders dismiss attempts to blame health service crisis on pandemic

Antrim Area Hospital reported "extreme pressure" at its emergency department on Tuesday. Picture: Cliff Donaldson.
Antrim Area Hospital reported "extreme pressure" at its emergency department on Tuesday. Picture: Cliff Donaldson.

HEALTH leaders have dismissed attempts by Downing Street to blame the pandemic for the crisis facing the NHS.

It follows the latest appeals from emergency departments in Northern Ireland yesterday.

The Department of Health said at midday on Tuesday almost 400 people were waiting to be admitted to hospital.

The Northern trust said the Antrim Area and Causeway Hospitals were under “extreme pressure” and told patients to expect a long wait if their condition was not urgent or life-threatening.

Both hospitals also issued an urgent staff appeal for registered nurses and nursing assistants to cover extra shifts last night and today.

Ray Rafferty from the trade union Unison said that 109 patients were sitting on trolleys with some waiting up to 72 hours to be seen at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, said: “This is really serious, this needs political intervention, it needs crisis intervention and to be frank over the whole holiday period I haven’t a word from politicians – particularly in Westminster – about how they’re going to deal with this.”

Dr Black said he believed this was because the Conservative government realised they had under invested in health over ten years.

“They thought they would just keep skimping and saving and cutting corners. They haven’t invested in enough staff, they haven’t invested in enough hospital beds.”

He said France had twice as many hospital beds per head of population, while Germany had three times as many.

Commenting on the recent pressures, the Department of Health spoke of the need for “sustained significant investment and reconfiguration of services.”

Yesterday, the primevminister’s official spokesman said the pandemic was among the biggest causes of the current NHS pressures, while also highlighting delays in discharging medically fit people.

Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said it was “disingenuous to blame the current situation on the pandemic”.

He added: “It is beyond doubt that Covid made a bad situation worse but the structural problems were there long before.

“Emergency care performance has been deteriorating for nearly a decade which is a consequence of wider staffing issues within the NHS, lack of beds and capacity and lack of social care – all problems which are due to under-resourcing.

“But this is fixable; we faced similar problems in the 1990s but only saw conditions improve once there was a political will to make them improve. We hope the current situation is acted upon in a similar manner."

Earlier this week, his RCEM colleague in Northern Ireland Dr Paul Kerr – an emergency consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast - told the Irish News the strain on emergency rooms would cause more unnecessary deaths over the coming months.

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said the lack of a Stormont Executive had made conditions “proportionately worse” in Northern Ireland.

“This is not a theoretical issue – it has seriously detrimental effects to the health and well-being of our people here,” she said.

Expressing her thanks to health workers for their service during a “twindemic” of flu and Covid-19, she said reform of health and social care was more now urgent than ever.