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Health service needs a plan for winter pressures

It is just over two weeks since the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) announced an £18 million investment aimed at tackling the pressures faced by health trusts across Northern Ireland during the winter period.

We were told almost half this money would go towards a range of measures including increased staffing at key times, additional bed capacity, additional domiciliary care nursing home placements and additional capacity in the GP out of hours service.

These are all common sense steps aimed at addressing the difficulties experienced at this time of year so it is rather disappointing that the first first major test of the health service over the festive holiday period exposed significant problems in our emergency departments.

Clearly, the HSCB and the Health Promotion Agency concluded the situation was serious enough for the authorities to take the unusual step of issuing a statement on Sunday appealing for people to stay away from emergency units unless their symptoms were urgent or life threatening.

Patients were advised to contact their GP, nearest minor injury unit or pharmacy, which is common sense. However, the usual options are not always readily available during the holiday period and this is something the authorities need to look at.

The fact that beds are being occupied by patients waiting on nursing home places or home care packages is also said to have contributed to the weekend pressures.

Again, this is not a new issue and figures just released show the scale of the problem with almost 800 people waiting for domiciliary care packages to be implemented in early November. Incredibly, 229 had been waiting for more than eight weeks.

This is plainly unacceptable and can only add to the difficulties facing staff in our emergency departments.

Of course, patients must play their part in only using casualty units when absolutely necessary.

But the authorities must also ensure there is a workable plan in place to deal with increased demand during the winter months.

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