Long waits at Northern Ireland A&Es tripled within a year
The number of people waiting in A&E longer than 12 hours in December was three times that of the same period a year earlier, it has emerged.
Latest official figures have revealed emergency departments across Northern Ireland struggled to cope with the number of people turning up looking for care last month - with 887 people waiting longer than 12 hours to be admitted, treated or discharged. This compares to 294 breaches of the 12-hour target in A&Es in December 2015.
According to figures released yesterday, just over two thirds of emergency department (ED) patients were dealt with inside the four-hour target last month.
The worst performing casualty unit last December was at Antrim Area Hospital, where 271 people - or eight people every day - waited longer than 12 hours to be treated, admitted or sent home.
The emergency departments at the Ulster Hospital and Craigavon Area Hospitals also struggled, with 177 and 123 12-hour breaches respectively during December 2016.
The statistics are even more shocking given the fact that hospitals were not dealing with a cold snap or flu outbreak at the time.
However, the head of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland has warned the situation is likely to deteriorate further.
Janice Smyth hit out at politicians at Stormont and said contingency measures must be put in place immediately to ensure the future of the NHS in Northern Ireland.
"Our nurses had some hope that the Bengoa Report was going to make a difference and they are now despairing that the political situation is diminishing that hope once again," she said.
"Nurses are working in intolerable conditions. They are short-staffed, they are under extreme stress and feel like they are not able to provide a proper and safe service to patients.
"This has an effect on their mental health and we are seeing more nurses going off on sick leave as a result.
"As a consequence of this, nurses are having to plug the gaps, shortages are being filled by bank and agency staff who are maybe not as experienced in the clinical area they are working in.
"It is not an exaggeration to say the health service is in a crisis."
The figures were released just a day after GPs voted in favour of proceeding with a mass resignation from the NHS. They say they have been forced to take the action after health bosses failed to deliver a promised rescue package to primary care.
If the action goes ahead, tens of thousands of patients across Northern Ireland will have to pay to see their GP. It is thought this will result in an influx of people turning up at emergency departments for treatment instead of paying to see a GP.
UUP health spokeswoman Jo-Anne Dobson has criticised the Health Minister for the spiralling waiting times in EDs.
"Michelle O'Neill should be ashamed of herself," she said. "By presiding over a deepening crisis in our health service, she has effectively abdicated the responsibilities she had as Health Minister to patients.
"The crisis in our local health service is wholly unprecedented.
"Never before in the history of the NHS have so many people been waiting so long to receive a diagnosis or treatment.
"It is often said that how our A&Es are performing is a barometer for the wider condition of the health service."
She added: "The revelation that in December 2016 only 65.4% of patients were treated and discharged, or admitted within four hours, when the target is 95%, starkly illustrates the unacceptable pressures currently being experienced."