Public urged to attend A&E only for urgent, life-threatening issues

Medical staff despairing at North’s health crisis, says director of college of nursing

As with the Republic, local newspapers, radio and television news in Northern Ireland have been filled with reports of terrible pressures on accident and emergency services in the North during the Christmas and New Year period.

There were stories of patients waiting hours to be treated, of medical staff close to collapse and even a report in the Irish News of St John's Ambulance volunteers requested to assist staff at Antrim Area Hospital on New Year's Eve.

Senior medical staff said they have never seen the situation as bad.

The North’s Health and Social Care Board said on Thursday that between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, 15,626 patients were treated at hospital accident and emergency departments.


This represented an increase of 4 per cent (559 patients) compared to last year and a 14 per cent increase (1,856) compared to 2015/16.

More than 900 people had to wait longer than 12 hours to be seen, treated and either discharged or admitted to hospital, the board reported.

Life-threatening conditions

A spokesperson for the board said people should only attend emergency departments for urgent and life-threatening conditions.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said she was inundated with complaints from people attending Craigavon Area Hospital, in her Upper Bann constituency.

She heard stories of cancelled cancer operations, of long queues at the emergency department, of patients on trolleys and of theatre beds being used for intensive care patients “because there are no ICU beds”.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said one of the big problems was that there was a shortage of about 1,500 nurses in the North, with current hospital nursing staff at about 15,500. She painted a picture of staff close to despair.

“They see no hope, no light at the end of tunnel. There are lots of nurses’ shifts but we can’t fill them because we don’t have the nurses. They believe their goodwill has been absolutely exhausted.”

Ms Smyth said a disproportionately high number of nurses in Northern Ireland – compared to Britain – were quitting the profession because of “workplace pressure and not being able to care for patients”.

Almost a year after the collapse of the Stormont Executive, the DUP and Sinn Féin were pointing the finger of blame at each other for the lack of a political intervention.

DUP assembly member Peter Weir criticised Sinn Féin for the failure to form a government, saying: "There has been no reform of the health service because Sinn Féin have placed their party-political demands as a higher priority than growing waiting lists."

Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said if the “DUP was sincere about the problems facing the health service it would end its support for vicious Tory austerity cuts to public services and focus on restoring the political institutions on a sustainable basis”.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times