Northern Ireland’s extreme hospital pressures could get worse, warns union boss

The extreme hospital pressure that almost prompted a ‘major incident’ on Tuesday in Northern Ireland is likely to continue, the largest union in the health service has said.

By Niall Deeney
Wednesday, 23rd February 2022, 8:18 pm
A potential major incident was declared at Antrim Area Hospital on Tuesday evening as medics struggled to cope with patient numbers
A potential major incident was declared at Antrim Area Hospital on Tuesday evening as medics struggled to cope with patient numbers

Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said the collapse of the Executive and the failure to pass a budget to tackle problems in the health service means we have “the ingredients for it to get worse”.

She was speaking to the News Letter after a ‘potential major incident’ was stood down at Antrim Area Hospital, meaning it had come close to becoming overwhelmed with too many patients and not enough beds and staff.

Ms McKeown said the staffing pressures that, in part, had prompted strike action by healthcare workers including nurses in the winter of 2019/2020 have now become more severe because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We entered this pandemic with severe pressure, severe staffing pressures,” she said.

“That, obviously, was a major part of the 2019/2020 dispute. The issue of safe staffing is not yet resolved.”

The union boss continued: “We had hoped there would be some legislation coming through in this Assembly mandate, but that’s not going to happen now.

“The problem is we now have a combination of entering the pandemic without sufficient staff, and losing people during the course of the pandemic.

“People also, because of the pressure, have taken early retirement. Or those who might have stayed on after retirement have decided to go. We are being squeezed from a number of areas.

“In addition to that, who is catching Covid? Several thousand people every single day and you cannot send frontline workers in with Covid to look after vulnerable people, you just can’t.”

On the current hospital pressures, she said: “The pressures are immense. They might have switched from the intensive pressures on the ICUs to all the other pressures.

“Of course we are moving towards nearly half the population on waiting lists. If people are not getting the treatment when they need it, they are coming in when there are red flag cases.

“I think we’re in a very difficult position now because, you will recall, there was a commitment to a three-year budget with significant additional funding for the health service. That’s all up in the air now that the Executive has collapsed. We do not know, as you and I are speaking, what sort of budget we will have.

“It will be, presumably, a one-year budget because the authority is not there. We are in trouble.”

She added: “We’ve got the ingredients for it to get worse because of the collapse of the Executive.”