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Top doctor proposes drunk tanks to help tackle ongoing A&E crisis in Northern Ireland

By Victoria O'Hara

A senior doctor has said "courageous decisions" now needed to be taken by politicians and health chiefs to alleviate the growing pressures on A&E units across Northern Ireland.

Unions have also voiced concerns emergency departments are running with the minimum amount of staff during one of the busiest periods of the year.

Among the suggestions backed by Dr George O'Neill to ease the pressures on the A&E system is the opening of a drunk tank - manned by the PSNI.

It comes after a 73-year-old woman was placed on a trolley in the waiting room area of the Royal Victoria Hospital A&E and wasn't seen by a doctor for eight hours.

Tommy Hall's mother was in casualty on Saturday from around 10pm. He claimed at one stage 11 ambulances were queued up outside and described the situation as "chaotic". Mr Hall, from Belfast, said drunk people were among the people waiting to be seen. Mr Hall's mother was told she needed to be put on an antibiotic drip because of pneumonia, however she was not seen until 6.30am the following morning.

The pensioner was then discharged as there was no bed available and sent away with antibiotics and steroids. Unions said staff faced an "extremely busy" period over the weekend. It is understood both A&E units at the Ulster and Antrim Area Hospitals were also busy yesterday afternoon. Ray Rafferty from Unison said: "We are always concerned about staffing levels and very concerned we are running with the minimum amount of staff."

Mr O'Neill, a doctor for over 40 years and chairman of Addiction NI, said that the problems facing the crisis-hit health service will not be solved at the "flick of a switch". But among his suggestions is for a single out-of-hours 24/7 unit for "walk-in" patients separate to an A&E unit to be opened. He added a drunk tank - a place for intoxicated patients to sober up - needs to be monitored by PSNI officers and properly trained staff.

"The new critical care building (at the RVH) will open hopefully within the next six months. The old emergency department they have now could be revamped into the out-of-hours running 24/7 for the Belfast area and out the back you could have a drunk tank," he said. "All these things are possible, it just needs someone to provide that leadership role with the willingness to make a courageous decision and go ahead and do it."

A regional task force led by Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride is aimed at improving waiting times.

A DHSSPS spokesman said Health Minister Jim Wells was aware of increased pressures across the health system. "The Belfast Trust has a comprehensive work programme to address pressures and early indications are that performance is improving, but this will take time to embed," the spokesman said.

Factfile

Dr George O'Neill's suggestions for alleviating pressure on A&E:

Opening a drunk tank properly supervised by the PSNI and monitored by trained staff.

Admitting patients to A&E only by "blue-light" ambulances or by a letter from their GP.

A single out-of-hours 24/7 unit separate to an emergency unit for "walk-in" patients.

Developing the services offered by pharmacies. Making better use of the skills of paramedics to avoid taking patients to hospital.

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