Covid-19: NI health leaders 'extremely concerned' by healthcare pressures

Article By: Louise Cullen

The stark warning comes as the latest data shows hospitals are operating close to capacity, with 96% of all beds occupied

Medical leaders in Northern Ireland have called for "breathing space", as the rise in Covid-19 cases places increasing pressure on health services.

The Royal Colleges of Surgeons, General Practitioners and Physicians said they are "extremely concerned".

The appeal was issued as the latest Department of Health data shows hospitals are operating at 96% capacity.

Trusts are understood to be escalating plans to deal with the surge.

Meanwhile, a doctor from the Royal College of Physicians has warned of concerns the concentration on emergency Covid care is "creating a massive backlog of chronic disease."

The department's Covid statistics dashboard show that 51 of Northern Ireland's 120 intensive care unit (ICU) beds were occupied by Covid-19 patients on Tuesday.

A further 54 ICU beds were occupied by patients with other conditions, leaving 15 available.

All six of Northern Ireland's health trusts and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service are under strain due to the extra pressures of the pandemic, and are close to substantially reducing routine surgery as a result.

More staff have been told they will be moved to work in Covid wards and intensive care units, BBC News NI understands.

My understanding is that managers across the healthcare system are looking at Covid surge plans that include cancelling elective surgery across the system.

Staff at Craigavon Area Hospital were understood to have been instructed on Tuesday to scale up the number of beds in its intensive care unit from six to 16 - which will have a massive impact on staff and the services they can provide.

Managers say they are doing their very utmost to retain services, but this is becoming increasingly hard.

They will try to retain cancer surgery as a priority but, as one manager put it, next week we will probably be working in a very different health environment.

Presentational grey line
In their joint appeal, the medical leaders urged people to follow public health advice on social distancing, hand-washing and face masks.

The leader of the Royal College of GPs, Dr Laurence Dorman, issued a plea to the public to support an "exhausted" health service workforce by following the rules.

"We're all extremely busy and extremely worried as our hospitals come close to capacity," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"In our practices, just like our hospitals, we are seeing that our staff are being affected by Covid, through either contracting the virus or by being in contact with people with the virus."

Dr Dorman said staff absences were putting pressure on the system, at a time when GPs are also having to cope with the fallout of cancelled operations.

He said GPs were seeing managing patients who have already been waiting a long time for cancer surgery and elective procedures such as hip replacements.

'Come to harm as a result'
Dr Hamish Courtney, from the Royal College of Physicians, said there are worries the routine care of those with chronic illness "will come to harm" due to the concentration on emergency Covid care.

The diabetes specialist told the BBC's Nolan Show on Wednesday the longer "non-emergency work gets put aside" the more likely conditions will "become very significant issues and irreversible".

"We have been working well below capacity since March but as time goes on, these problems with chronic disease go on," he added.

"People can't wait forever for care. They need blood tests and scans, they need their conditions reviewed and new problems dealt with."

Royal College of Surgeons director, Mark Taylor, confirmed it was increasingly difficult to deliver services like elective surgery and said breathing space was needed to get through the second wave.

'No position on lockdowns'
On Tuesday, the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland warned against reopening the hospitality industry next week.

Dr Tom Black told the Good Morning Ulster programme that the reopening of pubs and restaurants on 13 November would be "an act of careless vandalism".

On Wednesday, Dr Dorman was asked if he would support calls for another lockdown.

"The Royal College of GPs, as a national organisation, does not have a position on lockdowns per se," he replied.

"Ultimately these are political decisions."

The Department of Health reported on Tuesday that six more people had died in Northern Ireland after contracting Covid-19.

It brings its death toll, based on a positive test result being recorded, to 730.

A further 570 positive cases were recorded, bringing the Department of Health's total number of confirmed cases to 40,179 since the beginning of the pandemic.


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