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Ambulance Service in need of help itself

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 04/07/2016

Many people may be aware of the challenges facing the Ambulance Service in Northern Ireland, but the sheer scale of the problem was shown at the weekend when there was a shortage of no fewer than 12 ambulance crews
Many people may be aware of the challenges facing the Ambulance Service in Northern Ireland, but the sheer scale of the problem was shown at the weekend when there was a shortage of no fewer than 12 ambulance crews

Many people may be aware of the challenges facing the Ambulance Service in Northern Ireland, but the sheer scale of the problem was shown at the weekend when there was a shortage of no fewer than 12 ambulance crews.

This meant those on duty had to concentrate on life-threatening calls, with the result that others had to wait a long time for a service, or received none at all.

This is not just a practical necessity. There is also a psychological factor involved. Anyone who has had to call 999 in an emergency will remember the tension of waiting for the flashing blue lights coming to the rescue.

For many people there is comfort in the knowledge that help is at hand for a situation that has spiralled beyond their control.

Any delay in that help inevitably adds to the anxiety, so we should all spare a thought for those who were kept waiting at the weekend.

With so little cover available, there is a sense of playing Russian roulette with the health of our population. So much depends on the right decisions being made at source - what constitutes a life-threatening situation? On what basis is this decision made? And on what kind of information? There is always a waiting list for an ambulance, but fewer resources are bound to increase the risk factors.

Without doubt the current situation is placing even greater pressure on our hard-pressed paramedics. They have to balance the demands for a proper service against the other challenges posed by holiday cover, sickness and reduced overtime.

To add to the problems facing those who have to deal with such difficulties, they are sometimes attacked by people they are trying to help.

Jo-Anne Dobson MLA makes the point that the decision of staff to work part-time is also affecting the Ambulance Service. The increased pressure leads to more sick leave, and even fewer people on duty. Clearly, the Ambulance Service is trapped in a vicious circle, and staffing levels need to be looked at urgently.

Margaret Ritchie MP, who represents a wide rural constituency in South Down, has pointed out how the current shortages leave such areas particularly vulnerable.

New Health Minister Michelle O'Neill faces many challenges, but support for ambulance staff must be a priority to help them continue the good service on which they rightly pride themselves.

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