Health Minister Edwin Poots told the Assembly yesterday that recent headlines about overburdened A&E departments were a blip and that efficiency was significantly improving.
Concerns were raised after a major incident was declared at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast on Wednesday, when extra staff had to be brought in to deal with “extreme pressures”.
Forty-two people were waiting on trolleys at one stage, the BBC reported.
Mr Poots was responding to an urgent oral question at Stormont yesterday concerning the recent A&E headlines.
He said last week was “exceptional” and that it was important not to confuse it with the overall performance in the Royal Victoria Hospital and Craigavon Area Hospital.
Such situations with patient numbers “will continue through the winter”. He added: “This is to be expected in emergency departments.”
SDLP health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney asked the minister if the new weekend closures of Lagan Valley and Downe A&E departments were a factor in the pressures on other hospitals.
He pointed to issues at the Royal on Wednesday and Craigavon the previous Monday, asking if the problems at the Royal were “a symptom and not the cause”.
But Mr Poots insisted that the situation at the Royal on Wednesday was “in no way related” to the weekend closure of the Downe A&E.
The Royal admits 70-80 people each day but on Wednesday there were over 110, so the system “backed up” and the emergency plan was implemented to cope, he said.
Indeed, yesterday saw 63 people needing treatment at the Royal and nobody waiting over three hours, with everyone seen in the first instance for assessment inside approximately 20 minutes.
“We do not have a situation that is a crisis in emergency departments across Northern Ireland,” he insisted.
But nobody could predict the demand on any A&E unit in advance. As for the number of patients waiting longer than 12 hours for treatment, the minister said there were 414 breaches in the first 12 days of January last year but only 99 in the same period this year. So the system is working “much better” he added.