'This is not a normal winter'

NORTHERN Trust Chief Executive Jennifer Welsh has warned that ‘this is not a normal winter’ days after 17 ambulances were forced to queue outside Antrim Area Hospital last week due to a lack of available beds.

She has said she and her colleagues across the other four trusts are ‘extremely concerned’ about the problems facing the health service.

Rather than his usual colleagues, the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, Health Minister Robin Swann was joined on the podium for his press conference last week by Ms Welsh and Belfast Trust sister Joanna Sloan (below) - who was also the first person in NI to get the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

“You will have seen the media images of 17 ambulances parked outside Antrim Area Hospital's emergency department,” she said.

“Ambulances with sick people, doctors and nurses assessing and caring for them in the back of the ambulances because we literally had no room to bring them inside.

“That was a truly depressing spectacle and a truly grim reality, and sadly it is a scene that is played out right across the country.

“Thankfully, due to the extraordinary work by the team at Antrim and our colleagues at the Ambulance Service, the situation eased last night, but the hospital remains under severe pressure today.”

Ms Welsh added the Trusts have warned for months that hospitals are operating beyond capacity as waiting times for beds increase.

“It would be entirely wrong to dismiss this by saying: 'Sure, this happens every winter',” she added.

“That would be to ignore the fact that this is not a normal winter.

“A quarter of the patients occupying beds at Antrim Hospital were Covid-positive, so that puts the growing impact of Covid-19 in perspective.”

Ms Welsh has appealed to people to do all they can to prevent getting the virus and needing hospital treatment, adding: “The virus does not spread itself.”

She also thanked people for their continued patience and warned that increasing coronavirus cases could impact non-Covid care and that the only way to combat that is to keep cases of the virus down.

Ms Welsh added that Northern Trust staff are exhausted ‘physically and mentally’ from the pandemic.

“This has been the most challenging year of their lives,” she added.

Ms Welsh said that staff are trying to increase beds and also staff available to work through the bank system.

But she said Trusts don't have the flexibility they normally would and are not able to create capacity as they did before because of the impact of coronavirus.

Speaking last week, Cathy McCoy, Assistant Clinical Service Manager for Emergency Care in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust said: “This is the worst we have ever seen it.

“We only thought we had winter pressures – this is winter pressures and a Covid pandemic on top of it.”

Weeks previously she gave the Antrim Guardian an in-depth interview about the new Phone First service which has been rolled out at Antrim Area Hospital in a bid to take the pressure off the Emergency Department.

The Trust is again urging people to avail of the new service.

The service is designed for patients, including children, who are feeling unwell and considering travelling to an Emergency Department or Minor Injuries Unit with an injury or illness which requires urgent treatment but is not immediately life threatening.

If their condition is not life threatening they may have to wait longer or be signposted to another service.

The Northern Trust ‘Phone First’ will operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via on 0300 123 1 123.

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