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Coronavirus: Fears over number of intensive care beds to meet crisis in Northern Ireland


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An almost deserted Royal Avenue in Belfast on Sunday

An almost deserted Royal Avenue in Belfast on Sunday

Photopress

An almost deserted Royal Avenue in Belfast on Sunday

Health bosses have refused to reveal how many intensive care beds are available in Northern Ireland.

The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) has failed to respond to repeated requests for the number of available beds in intensive care units (ICUs) here.

It comes after it was announced that Northern Ireland has officially moved into the delay phase of managing the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the Government is preparing to close schools and ask over-70s to isolate themselves at home.

As of 2pm on Sunday, 11 more people here were being treated for Covid-19.

It is the single biggest rise in presumptive positive cases over a 24-hour period since coronavirus arrived in Northern Ireland.

It brings to 45 the total number of people here who have been diagnosed with coronavirus.

However, official figures are no longer an accurate reflection of the true scale of the outbreak as tests are only being carried out on people who require hospital admission.

Instead, people with mild symptoms - a new and persistent cough and/or fever - are being asked to stay at home and self-isolate for seven days.

Meanwhile, 40 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in the Republic, with the second death confirmed over the weekend.

The number of confirmed UK cases of the virus has reached 1,372, with the youngest person to die aged 59.

Concerns are growing that there will be insufficient capacity within the health service to cope with a surge of patients falling seriously ill with coronavirus after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that the UK has 5,000 ventilators, but needs many more times that number.

The Government is in ongoing talks with a range of manufacturers to encourage them to help produce medical equipment such as ventilators to help with an expected surge in people requiring intensive care.

On Friday Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann said health service activity across Northern Ireland will have to be significantly curtailed as resources are diverted to care for people suffering from coronavirus.

Patients have already reported that their surgeries in the last week have been cancelled because of a shortage of ICU beds, including an operation on a patient with a benign brain tumour.

A query was last week submitted to the HSCB asking for details of services that will be cancelled, the number of ICU beds broken down by trust, and the number of ICU beds that were in use at a particular point in time.

According to the HSCB, there are 16 ICU beds in the Western Trust, 12 in the Northern Trust, 54 in the Belfast Trust, 10 in the South Eastern Trust and eight in the Southern Trust.

The HSCB did not provide any specific details on services that will be affected, nor would it reveal the number of ICU beds that were in use on Friday.

An HSCB spokeswoman said: "The number of ICU beds in use is constantly changing with admissions and discharges which is reflective of the nature of the ICU patient population. It is important to emphasise that capacity can be enhanced if required.

"Critical care units in Northern Ireland operate within a network with the aim of ensuring equity of care for patients and optimising use of critical care beds across the region.

"When demand for critical care increases, capacity can be increased by utilising space and staff from other areas, as well as frequent communication at a regional level to ensure best use of critical care beds.

"Rather than absolute bed numbers, critical care capacity is used flexibly to respond to patient need, for example if the number of patients requiring ICU care increases, the capacity available for high dependency units care decreases.

"This will also depend on the availability of staff to work in this specialist service area."

Paula Bradshaw, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said it is time for Mr Swann to ensure transparency to reassure the public. "I detect some concern among the public that we may not have sufficient space to cope with the spike and I hope the minister will be able to provide some reassurance on that," she said.

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