Northern Ireland is in the grip of two winter bugs that threaten to bring the health service here to a standstill.
Experts have urged anyone suffering from norovirus or the flu to stay at home to prevent the spread of the highly contagious bugs. Family doctors have been swamped with patients suffering from diarrhoea, vomiting and chest complaints — with 200,000 GP consultations in Northern Ireland in the 10-day period leading up to New Year.
While norovirus — which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea — has peaked, GPs have warned the worst of the flu is yet to come.
There are fears hospitals across Northern Ireland could struggle to cope in coming weeks as the number of people affected by flu is expected to rise.
Newry GP Dr Arnie McDowell said: “We are really encouraging anyone who has not had the seasonal flu vaccine and who is eligible to make sure and get it as soon as possible.
“People in high-risk categories, such as the elderly and those with respiratory conditions like COPD, are the ones who will end up in hospital or becoming seriously ill if they get the flu. We always talk about winter pressures although recently we have been experiencing these all year round, with pressures in A&E and on hospital beds, and time will tell whether they will be able to cope.”
Dr Tom Black, a Londonderry GP and chair of the British Medication Association’s GP committee, said doctors have worked hard in recent weeks to ensure people are not admitted to hospital.
However, he said as the number of flu infections rises in coming weeks it is likely more people will require hospital treatment — and he is concerned they may not have the capacity to cope with demand.
It comes just weeks after the former chairman of the Northern Health & Social Care Trust claimed the A&E ward at Antrim Area Hospital is “fully stretched”.
Most recent government figures revealed almost 183 patients waited longer than 12 hours in the hospital’s A&E for treatment or to be admitted to the hospital
in just one month. Patients at the A&Es at the Ulster and Causeway hospitals also experienced lengthy waits, according to the figures.
Dr Black added: “We've had to put extra surgeries on and I spoke to one of the out of hours managers and he described the situation as manic. They saw in Western Urgent Care — the out of hours service for the west — more than 1,000 patients or consultations in one day. That was the Saturday before Christmas.”
Dr Allen McCullough from Antrim Health Centre said: “During a six-hour shift I was dealing with 30 to 40 patients.
“The majority can self-manage their condition, by taking paracetamol and drinking lots of fluids, so there would be even more people affected who we didn’t speak to so the numbers are significant.”