NI’s busiest A&E had to issue 46 ‘extreme pressure’ public warnings in 14 months

Northern Ireland’s busiest Emergency Department (ED) had to tell the public it was under “extreme pressure” no fewer than 46 times in a 14-month period, it has emerged.

Saturday, 21st August 2021, 7:24 am
Marc Neil, assistant head of unscheduled care, speaking outside the Ulster Hospital last November

The statistic was unearthed by SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, thanks to a question he had posed to the health minister at Stormont.

The A&E (as Emergency Departments are still colloquially known) is at Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, east Belfast.

Throughout the last year or so officials have been posting messages online warning of “extreme pressure” there, and telling people not to attend unless it was essential.

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For example, last November Marc Neil, assistant head of unscheduled care, posted a video online saying “we’ve got about 100 patients in the department, 40 of those are waiting to get admitted to a bed”.

He advised the public to go to GPs, pharmacies, or other hospitals if they did not have a “time-critical emergency”.

According to the Department of Health’s (DoH) 2020/21 statistics, the Ulster Hospital Emergency Department saw more patients than any other in the whole Province – 92,234.

For comparison, there were 86,930 at the Royal, 82,835 at Craigavon, and 75,234 at Antrim.

The reason Mr McGrath – an MLA for South Down – had asked specifically about the Ulster Hospital was because for many of his constituents it is the nearest fully-functioning Emergency Department, since services at Downe Hospital in Downpatrick were cut during the Covid crisis.

Mr McGrath had asked health minister Robin Swann “to detail each time the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald issued a notice that the emergency department was under extreme pressure in each month since April 2020”.

The response came on Thursday, saying: “Information provided by the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust indicates the public were alerted to pressures at the Ulster ED 46 times between April 2020 – June 2021.”

Reacting to the figure, Mr McGrath said: “Since the closure of the Downe ED I have been very concerned about the impact this is having on our health service, and the displacement of patients.

“This news only underscores further that further investment is needed in our healthcare system to address not only our seemingly never-ending waiting lists, but also to address the concerns facing our Emergency Departments.

“We’ve a perfectly good ED in the Downe waiting, and more importantly ready, to be used.

“I am concerned the First Ministers really don’t seem to have grasped just how severe the current stasis in our health service is.

“And unless we see radical changes soon, we’ll only see more and more of these alerts – and the end point of this will be too awful to comprehend.”

When contacted by the News Letter, the Department of Health referred the paper to an statement issued by Robin Swann in July, in which he said: “Our health and social care system was fragile before the pandemic and the last 18 months have inflicted untold damage.

“The truth is that the system as a whole is struggling to cope with current levels of demand for care. This is severely impacting EDs, GP services, the NI Ambulance Service and other areas.”

But he believes his calls for “substantial investment in health” have strong support around the Executive table”.

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