Health crisis: We have simply run out of beds, says top A&E doctor as 12-hour waits triple

The emergency department at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast
The emergency department at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast
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The number of patients forced to wait over 12 hours in busy emergency departments over Christmas has more than trebled, new figures show.

In one of the starkest illustrations of the crisis facing the Northern Ireland health service yet, figures released by the Health and Social Care Board yesterday show that 2,435 people spent at least 12 hours at A&E during the fortnight between December 20 and January 3.

The year before, less than a third of that number – 723 – had to wait such a long time over the Christmas and New Year period.

This is despite an overall decline in the number of patients actually attending A&E this year compared to last year.

Dr Ian Crawford, the vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine in Northern Ireland, described the figures as “staggering”.

He added: “These figures serve to again highlight the deepening crisis in our EDs and hospitals, where we have quite simply run out of beds.”

Dr Crawford also pointed out that there are many thousands more people waiting at least 12 hours at emergency departments now than there were six years ago, when a “major incident” was declared due to the number of people waiting for long periods of time at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

“Ironically, these figures are released six years to the day from a major incident was declared in the Belfast Trust due to the number of patients spending long periods of time in the Royal Victoria Hospital’s ED awaiting beds on wards, and three years to the day from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly,” he said.

“The former precipitated an RQIA review of unscheduled care, regional summits and a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission inquiry into emergency healthcare, but the situation is worse than ever despite our Department of Health’s efforts to ‘transform’ health and social care.”

In the entire 2014/15 financial year, when the major incident was declared in the Belfast Trust, a total of 3,109 patients spent more than 12 hours in Northern Ireland emergency departments.

Dr Crawford continued: “In the first seven months alone of 2019/20, 22,057 patients spent more than 12 hours in our emergency departments in Northern Ireland, with all of the attendant risks to quality of care and patient safety.”

The top doctor added: “Those leading the ongoing review of urgent and emergency care must be cognisant that seeking to do things differently or more efficiently will not offset the need for corrective investment to increase staffing, the number of acute hospital beds and the social care that are fundamentally required to meet the health and social care needs of our growing and ageing population. Political oversight is immediately required to deliver this for our patients and staff.”

The Health and Social Care Board said “radical transformation of services” is needed to stop the situation getting even worse.

A spokesperson said: “Some patients have had to wait for unacceptably long periods in emergency departments – for that we sincerely apologise.

“The well-documented workforce shortages, as well as the impact of flu and the norovirus, have also compounded the pressures.

“In the longer term, we need a radical transformation of services. The Department of Health is currently carrying out a review of urgent and emergency care to establish a new regional care model.”