North’s health service facing unprecedented pressures - surgeon

Difficulties sustaining services leads to ‘moral distress’ among staff, Stormont committee hears

The committee was hearing evidence on Tuesday on the winter pressures on the health service in the North. File photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

The North’s health service is facing unprecedented pressures which have created “moral distress” for staff, a senior surgeon has warned.

The Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mark Taylor, told the Stormont health committee the health service was facing "pressures never seen before on these shores" and the "difficulties of trying to sustain services has led to a moral distress in our ranks."

These pressures, he said, were not only the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic “and the brutalising effect that it has had on our staff and society as a whole” but also the knock-on effect which meant the health service had been as busy as winter during the summer.

The committee was hearing evidence on the winter pressures on the health service in the North.


Also on Tuesday, the North's Department of Health reported a further two deaths of patients with Covid-19, and another 1,585 cases of the virus.

In the North’s hospitals, 341 patients were receiving treatment, with 29 in intensive care.

Mr Taylor said almost half a million people were currently waiting for surgery or for a first appointment with a hospital consultant, and these waiting lists were increasing pressure on hospital emergency departments.

“The Northern Ireland waiting times were tragic before Covid and unfortunately they are now much worse,” he said.

Covid-19 “has deeply impacted levels and capacity of elective surgery like never before. It has been stripped down to the very basics”.

He said surgeries, including red flag cases for cancer, were “regularly being cancelled” and there were “record attendances” in emergency departments.

“I would suggest in part the waiting lists and the inability to deal with people in surgical terms is further burdening the emergency departments as these people seek constant attention for the very condition that we have the ability to rectify.”

Vaccination clinics

Meanwhile, new vaccination clinics have been opened by health trusts in the North in order to accelerate the booster jab programme following concerns over the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The new clinics will walk in jabs and booster appointments to anyone in the 50 plus age group, as well as first and second doses for all ages.

People in their 40s who had their second dose six months ago are also eligible for their booster vaccine, while the scheme will be extended to those who had their second jab less than six months ago shortly.

Separately on Tuesday a teaching union has warned entire year groups are being sent home to learn remotely because of staff shortages and an inability to find substitute teachers.

Justin McCamphill told the BBC the situation was “spiralling” and he expected it to worsen in the coming weeks.

“I think you will see that practice spreading to all schools, where schools are going to have to ration the resources,” he said.

The Department of Education in Northern Ireland said there “no plans” to close schools early for Christmas or for all schools to return to remote learning.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times