NI Executive to consider ‘decisive’ interventions to address Covid-19 pressures

Deputy First Minister says something must be done to ‘gain control of the situation’

Ambulances at the entrance to the emergency department with a number of the vehicle with patients awaiting to be admitted, at Antrim Area Hospital, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Ambulances at the entrance to the emergency department with a number of the vehicle with patients awaiting to be admitted, at Antrim Area Hospital, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

A series of “decisive” and “robust” interventions are to be proposed to try to deal with heavy demands on Northern Ireland’s health service, Stormont health Minister Robin Swann has said.

With the latest figures showing hospital bed occupancy running above capacity, Mr Swann told the Northern Executive that he would recommend “crucial interventions to mitigate against those pressures”.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said something must be done “to try and gain control of the situation”.

After seven weeks of restrictions the North’s lockdown ended last Friday with retail and much of the hospitality sector allowed to reopen. Restrictions are to be further relaxed for the period from December 23rd to December 27th to allow more households to meet over the Christmas holidays.

However, the latest figures from the North’s health department show there has been little or no drop in the incidence of the virus in recent weeks, prompting public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally to say the “handling of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland beggars belief”.

“The health service is on the brink of being overwhelmed, but efforts to prevent growth in cases have been relaxed. Shops, coffee shops, restaurants and bars serving food all open. Disaster looms,” added Dr Scally, who is president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine in London.

Ventilators

Currently 457 patients are receiving treatment for coronavirus in hospitals in the North, with 32 people in intensive care and 25 on ventilators.

The department on Wednesday recorded eight more Covid-19 deaths, taking the total to 1,143, and 510 further cases of the virus, bringing the total to 59,631.

In response, Ms O’Neill signalled that the Northern Executive would seriously reappraise the situation when it meets on Thursday.

Ms O’Neill also referred to pressures at Antrim Area Hospital, which were so severe on Tuesday that 17 ambulances were queued up outside as there was no room inside to treat the patients. Medical staff had to assessed those awaiting entry in the ambulances.

“I think it is totally unacceptable that people are being cared for in the back of ambulances but that shows you our health service is under huge pressure,” she said. “So it is very clear to me that what we need is to have an intervention, what that looks like we will discuss at the Executive tomorrow.”

First Minister Arlene Foster said she did not expect Mr Swann would be proposing “closing down before Christmas”.

“But we will of course look to see what Robin and his team of advisers have to say to us, I don’t want to prejudge what he is going to say to us tomorrow but we are in a serious situation,” she said.

Hard work

Jennifer Welsh, chief executive of the Northern Trust, which manages Antrim Area Hospital, said pressures remained on Wednesday but the situation had eased due to the hard work of staff and ambulance crews.

Meanwhile, more than 300 passengers were stranded on a ferry bound for Belfast from Liverpool due to some crew members coming down with Covid-19.

Stena said the non customer facing six crew who tested positive were “being cared for and are doing well, with only mild symptoms”. Fifteen close contacts also were identified and were self-isolating.

Stena on Wednesday said it had got the all-clear to transfer the passengers to another vessel, the Mersey for a crossing later in the day to Belfast.

A spokesman said the passengers should not face any danger of contracting Covid-19 as those infected had no direct dealings with the 322 passengers.