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Northern Ireland hospital’s critical beds crisis after flu patients swamp unit

By Emily Moulton

Seriously ill patients are not being admitted to the critical care unit of a Northern Ireland hospital because all its beds are being occupied by flu patients.

Yesterday it emerged that almost half of all intensive care beds in the province were being used by influenza victims. The outbreak has also caused some elective surgery to be postponed.

Dundonald’s Ulster Hospital has no beds available in its £53m intensive care unit (ICU) — and even has one seriously-ill patient isolated in a theatre room.

Last night a South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust spokeswoman confirmed its unit was “oversubscribed”.

She said: “We have nine patients in critical care. Eight are in the ICU and one is in high dependency. Yesterday (Wednesday) there were 11.

“What has happened because of the pressure at the moment, one patient has been left in theatre. So, yes, we are oversubscribed.”

She would not reveal how many had swine flu, only admitting it was a “mixture”.

There were reports of patients being moved out of the ICU at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital into rooms on the same ward due to swine flu cases. But the Belfast Trust denied this was the case.

A spokeswoman said of the 36 patients in critical care only a “small number”, understood to be five, had swine flu.

Dr Patricia Donnelly, who is in charge of acute hospital services in Belfast, said there was only one child with swine flu in critical care and another child with a different type of flu.

“A smaller number of patients are affected this time, but those who were affected definitely are sicker,” she said. “Critical care is always busy throughout the year, but we have well-tested plans to increase our capacity as and when it is required. At this point in time both in Belfast and across the region we are using those escalation plans and we have created additional capacity.”

Meanwhile Public Health Agency figures show that the number of people suffering from H1N1 swine flu virus jumped from 135 to 185 victims over the past week.

Further details about the cases are being withheld. The PHA said it would not release general details such as age or trust area for those who have contracted swine flu. It also said it would not publish any deaths from swine flu or provide confirmation if an individual had died from swine flu because “it was no longer a pandemic”.

But across the water, where there have been 45 swine flu deaths and five cases of flu-related deaths, health officials are continuing to release information such as the age of individuals. The Assembly’s health committee chair Jim Wells questioned why the PHA would want to withhold the information.

“We do not betray patient confidentiality, we don’t know who they are. We just want to know how many there are and what age they are,” he said.

“Surely the public need to know? There is another argument that you don’t want to cause public alarm. We wouldn’t be causing alarm. They just need to be fair and honest about the information with the public. Not telling them, I think, is much worse. I can’t help but think there’s something going on. The public have a right to know how many people in their trust area are suffering from swine flu as well as what age group.

“We are not asking for their address or their mother’s name here, just general information.”

Maureen McCartney, consultant in health protection for the HPA, told the Belfast Telegraph once the World Health Organisation declared the pandemic over last year there was no need for the same information protocols.

She said all the trusts submit their information to the agency. It would not be publishing details as it did last year, she added.

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