Altnagelvin Hospital triggers major incident plan as A&Es struggle
Health officials have apologised after emergency departments across Northern Ireland struggled to cope over Christmas and New Year.
The situation at the Western Trust's Altnagelvin Hospital earlier this week was so bad that a major incident plan was put into place on January 2 after 33 patients waited more than 12 hours to be treated.
This comes during an unprecedented crisis period for Altnagelvin during which five wards were closed because of a norovirus outbreak that continues to affect the hospital.
In November a health watchdog found patient care at Altnagelvin's emergency department had been compromised during busy periods because of a shortage of staff.
An inspection by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority also found that staff at the A&E felt "burnt out" and stressed because there was not enough help.
The Western Trust said: "January 2, 2017 proved a particularly difficult and challenging day and the emergency plan was enacted for a period of time to deal with a pressurised period in our emergency department. This measure was stood down shortly afterwards."
However, the numbers of patients at other hospitals across Northern Ireland who also endured lengthy waits for treatment over the holiday period were just as grim.
Figures released by the Health and Social Care Board covering the period from Christmas Eve to January 2 show that a total of 462 patients had a wait of at least 12 hours across the main hospitals - 94 at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, 165 at Antrim Area and 28 patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
A spokeswoman for the Health and Social Care Board said: "Plans have been put in place across the health and social care system to manage increased demand at this time of year.
"However, given the extent of the increase in demand, some patients have had to wait more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital.
"We fully understand the distress and inconvenience this causes to patients and their families and apologise to them for it."
The SDLP's health spokesman, Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan, said the pressure on the emergency departments was the result of difficulties in other areas, including bed blocking and long delays in securing a GP appointment.
He added: "These problems experienced by the emergency departments are systematic of difficulties in the health service which already exist.
"There have been issues around workforce management and the inability to provide care packages for patients that could be released to the community, which has led to bed blocking.
"Another factor has been the lengthy wait a lot of people face when they want to make an appointment to see their GP, which has led to people bypassing their GP and going to an emergency department to be seen.
"I would remind people that all health boards have asked anyone who is not a real emergency to stay away from the emergency departments."