Robin Swann promises ‘rebuilding’ plan for entire health service after worst-ever A&E waiting times
He was speaking after the publication of the worst emergency care waiting time figures since records began in Northern Ireland.
In January – long before the first coronavirus death was recorded here – a shocking 5,891 people were forced to spend 12 hours or more waiting for treatment at hospital A&Es.
That’s the highest figure ever recorded in a single month in Northern Ireland and more than 10-times higher than it was just four years ago in 2016, when only 545 people were forced to wait such a long time.
Mr Swann said: “It is well known that attendances at emergency departments (EDs) dropped significantly during the Covid-19 lockdown period. Numbers have started to climb significantly in recent weeks.
“On one level, this is clearly welcome as it means people who need urgent or emergency care are not staying away from hospital. However, it also points to serious challenges.
“Prior to the pandemic, there was clear evidence that our urgent and emergency care services were under increasing pressure with growing numbers of people experiencing long waits to be seen in crowded emergency departments.
“Given the continuing need for social distancing, we cannot allow this to happen again.”
Mr Swann promised an overhaul of not just the emergency care system in Northern Ireland, but the wider health and social care system.
“As part of the work to rebuild services and in anticipation of future growing demand, emergency departments are developing new ways of working to maintain safety levels and avoid overcrowding in the longer term,” he said.
“Next week, I will be publishing a detailed blueprint for the rebuilding of our health and social care system. This is a massive and long-term undertaking, given the limitations on capacity due to the ongoing Covid-19 threat.
“We have heard a lot about how social distancing will severely affect the capacity of shops, restaurants and other businesses for months and possibly years.
“This will be even more of a challenge for emergency departments and other health and social care services. There will be no return to business as usual.”
The figures also show that despite fewer people turning up at A&E in March when coronavirus had begun to spread rapidly, waiting times were largely unchanged when compared with the previous year. In March this year, 49,232 patients turned up at emergency departments. This is a drop of 22,084 than in March last year, when 71,316 patients turned up at A&E, a reduction of 31%.
But the number of people waiting 12 hours was almost identical – 2,552 in March this year and 2,580 last year.