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Hospitals 'didn't fall over' in A&E crisis, claims medical chief

By Victoria O'Hara

The Chief Medical Officer has staunchly defended the action taken by struggling health trusts to cope with a major spike in patients going to Emergency Departments over Christmas.

Michael McBride insisted the system "didn't fall over".

Patients who had operations cancelled as a result of steps taken to ease the pressure on the fragile system will have them rescheduled within three-to-six weeks, health bosses have revealed.

The announcement was made as a panel of medical experts, including Dr McBride and Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte McArdle, gave evidence to the Stormont Health Committee.

The Chief Medical Officer, who faced tough questioning during a two-hour session, insisted "the system coped, and managed, and didn't fall over".

Michael Bloomfield, director of performance management and corporate services of the Health and Social Care Board, said latest figures showed a 12% increase in patients with fractures going to the A&E between December 22 and January 5 compared to the same period the year before.

There was also a 7.5% rise in overall A&E attendances compared to the year before. Problems emerged on January 5 when 540 patients were waiting for more than 12 hours in A&Es and trusts triggered escalation plans to cope. This involved around 190 non-urgent operations being cancelled across Northern Ireland so staff could treat the patients in A&E. Both apologised to patients affected, but Ms McArdle said she did not "feel remotely embarrassed" by the actions.

Dr McBride said there had been an "unprecedented pressure" experienced by the emergency departments, adding that escalation plans spearheaded by the trusts had been successful, with numbers waiting more than 12 hours dropping.

He and Ms McArdle were giving evidence as part of a regional task group set up last year by former Health Minister Edwin Poots. Its aim was to eliminate all avoidable 12-hour waiting time breaches from this winter onwards.

A Major Incident was triggered at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, in January 2014 when more than 40 patients were waiting more than 12 hours on trolleys to be treated.

Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy suggested both Dr McBride and Ms McArdle must feel "hugely embarrassed" to be returning to the committee with the same problem experienced by patients 12 months earlier.

Mr Bloomfield said the patients whose procedures had been cancelled should have their surgery "within the next three-to-six weeks".

It also emerged a pilot programme could be up and running by March to divert drunk patients who should not be treated in A&E.

Ms McArdle explained: "There is a model developed with the voluntary sector and police to look at developing the work in Shaftesbury Square and the bus that looks after people who are intoxicated particularly at the weekend.

"We would like to try and extend that and provide some minor injury cover to that and to pilot that and see what outcome and difference that makes both to that group of clients and to the emergency department. I think that could be done in a fairly low-cost way.

"The board is finalising specification for that service currently," Mr Bloomfield added.

Background

Around 1,800 more patients were in A&E departments than usual over new year - a 7.5% spike. On January 5, 40 patients were waiting for more than 12 hours in A&Es. Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride said he believed a pollution alert had an effect on numbers. Figures show there had been a 10% increase in fracture patients compared to last year.

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