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Ambulance queue outside NI hospital raises concerns over emergency cover

A video has emerged of seven ambulances queued outside a Northern Ireland hospital waiting to hand over patients, sparking concerns regarding ambulance cover and delays in people receiving treatment.

The footage shot outside Craigavon Area Hospital's Accident and Emergency Department last month, shows a string of ambulances waiting to transfer patients for treatment.

It comes amid warnings from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) that response times to non-urgent calls are set to be hit by a series of staffing and resourcing pressures.

Crew absences linked to Covid-19 and an increase in assaults on staff were among reasons cited for the impact on cover levels.

The NIAS also said crews were impacted by the pressures experienced by Northern Ireland’s five health trusts, stressing that turnaround times were being hit by the reduced space in emergency departments due to social distancing requirements.

Alliance Party health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said the situation is "clearly very concerning".

"It represents the huge challenge we are seeing with the restoration of services after the peak of Covid infections," she said.

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"It also reinforces the need for transformation, including the modernisation of the ambulance service, to proceed swiftly."

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said: "The video and reports about handover times at Craigavon Hospital are deeply concerning, particularly when ambulance cover has been an issue in local communities during busy weekends.

"I know that our Health Service Staff are pushing themselves to the limit to deliver for people in need, especially during this public health crisis. I'll be contacting the trust to ensure that every resource is made available to help ambulance service staff and that people receive timely treatment."

In response, a NIAS spokesperson said: "The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service addressed the situation with delays in turnaround times across the region in a comprehensive statement released to media outlets on July 17.

"These delays in ambulance turnaround times, due in no small measure to reduced space in the emergency departments as a result of social distancing requirements, impact greatly on the number of crews we have available to respond to emergencies in the community, in a timely manner.

"NIAS continues to work with colleagues in the Department of Health, Health and Social Care Board and the five hospital Trusts to find solutions to these issues."

A Southern Health and Social Care Trust spokesperson said Craigavon Area Hospital’s Emergency Department (ED) is "one of the busiest in Northern Ireland" and, following a drop in demand during lockdown, attendances have returned to pre-Covid-19 levels.

"We are still in a pandemic and while the rate of Covid-19 in the local community is currently thankfully low, the likelihood of further spikes in numbers is high and our priority is creating a safe environment for patients and staff," they added.

"We have new arrangements to manage the risks of Covid19 in an acute hospital setting and this places extra demands and constraints on our staff. We are working hard to safely re-open the Emergency Department at Daisy Hill Hospital by the end of September.”

Particular concerns have also been previously raised about ambulance cover in the Newry, south Down and south Armagh region.

Sinn Fein MP Mickey Brady said issues have been worsened due to the temporary closure of the A&E Department at Daisy Hill Hospital.

"We are acutely aware of the longstanding pressures on the ambulance service which have been further compounded by the covid pandemic. Staffing levels that were already stretched have been inevitably reduced even more due to covid, resulting in an over reliance on overtime to cover shifts, which is incredibly challenging and simply unsustainable," he said.

"With longer journey times for ambulance crews now having to travel to Craigavon Emergency Department whilst Daisy Hill Emergency Department is temporarily closed, this has also has had a significant impact on the service."

Earlier this month it emerged that staffing issues had resulted in no full-time ambulance cover operating across southern parts of Down and Armagh on Friday, July 3.

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