The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has experienced its worst ever staff shortage in living memory, a medical chief has said.
Normal staffing levels were dramatically reduced at the weekend, with about 20 ambulance crews unavailable.
Two crews from across the border were required to plug service gaps – one in Newry on Friday and one at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry on Saturday.
While reciprocal arrangements allow for cross-border co-operation between ambulances services, it is usually for critical incidents, rather than to cover shifts due to staff shortages.
NIAS medical director Dr Nigel Ruddell told the News Letter that the situation over the weekend was “exceptional circumstances”, adding: “The figures initially were at 60% cover and as far as we can recall that has been the worst weekend we have encountered.”
Mr Ruddell attributed the situation to a number of factors, including increased call outs, longer turnaround times at hospital, staff vacancies, annual leave and absence.
He continued: “It is the time of year when a lot of staff take annual leave, although we do try to plan around that.
“Another reason is that we have a number of vacancies that we are actively trying to recruit to, and we also have higher than normal levels of sickness.
“There are other pressures on us as well, including an increase in demand on our service, and issues such as how quickly we can get our ambulances turned around from emergency departments, which is reflective of the pressures in other parts of the health service.”
He added that the NIAS is reliant on staff volunteering for overtime to fill the gap at weekends, something which is becoming less and less common.
“It is no secret that we have been experiencing pressures at weekends. We are constantly juggling the numbers throughout the week and from as early as last Monday or Tuesday we had an idea that this weekend was going to be a particular pressure point,” he said.
“We have relied too long on the goodwill of our staff to do overtime.
“They work extremely hard, they have a stressful job and they are tired.
“We now see a trend where there are less people willing to do overtime at weekend.”
And he insisted that the NIAS was on a mission to recruit and train new staff,
“We would like to be in a position where we don’t have to rely on overtime and hence our recruitment and training is ongoing to try and raise our emergency staff numbers as quickly as we can,” he added.
On Sunday, Mr Ruddell apologised for delays in services but he insisted critical call-outs had not been impacted.
When asked which part of the Province has been most severely impacted by the staff shortages, Mr Ruddell said: “It has been all across NI, there is no area that hasn’t been affected, but it is typically the southern division that is most affected.”
Voluntary crews from the St John Ambulance and private sector operators in Northern Ireland were also used to help cover call-outs over the weekend.