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Coronavirus: Staff crisis shuts down GP-run centre set up in Derry to assess patients

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Health Minister Robin Swann with Dr Tom Black at Altnagelvin Hospital on an earlier visit

Health Minister Robin Swann with Dr Tom Black at Altnagelvin Hospital on an earlier visit

Health Minister Robin Swann with Dr Tom Black at Altnagelvin Hospital on an earlier visit

The first GP-led coronavirus assessment centre in Northern Ireland had to shut over the weekend, as the nursing staff and their families were struck down by illness.

The centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry was launched last Wednesday, acting as a frontline measure to protect intensive care beds and hospitals here from being overwhelmed by Covid-19.

Not intended to act as a testing centre, the facility will assess patients who have been referred there following a phone consultation with their GP.

However, the centre had to be closed on Saturday and yesterday with a pool of 40 nurses supplied by the Western Health Trust having to remain off work, due to either their own illness or family infections leaving them in self-isolation.

This left the facility unable to operate during the 8am-10pm planned hours at the weekend, despite the centre's 16 GPs being available to work.

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, confirmed that the facility would reopen today from 8am.

"We set up on Wednesday morning and we ran fine for three days," he said.

"There were then 40 nurses either isolated through their own ill-health or through family members being ill.

"The GPs were available but the nurses weren't, so we stood it down over the weekend.

"We are confident that we have increased the number of nurses in the pool and that the GPs and hospital nurses will be able to provide a continuous service from now on."

In the wake of the closure, some have been critical over the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) the nursing staff have available.

Dr Black dismissed this and suggested the Altnagelvin facility was better equipped than even his own practice.

"I was back in my practice on Friday. I was the GP sending patients to the Covid centre," he explained. "I have to say it definitely felt safer in the centre because it was better staffed, better equipped and better laid out than my own practice could provide.

"In many ways I felt safer in the Covid centre than my own practice."

While Dr Black is confident that an increase in the amount of nurses available will ensure that the situation is not repeated, he stressed the key to lowering the strain on health workers is to rapidly increase the amount of testing available.

"The way to avoid this in future is to be able to test the staff," he said.

"So you can say to them: 'Yes you have a sore throat but it isn't Covid so you can go back to work'.

"We have to check temperatures twice a day, so we send our staff home with any raising of the temperature.

"If I could test them instead, I wouldn't lose those staff in the practice.

"Going forward, the first short term thing is that we have increased number of nurses available in the pool and made the Altnagelvin centre a priority.

"The second thing we will do to ensure continuity is to bring in the testing."

A spokesperson for the Western Health and Social Care Trust said: "It is our priority that when the centre is open that we are providing care to our patients in a safe, effective and timely manner.

"Due to some early staffing issues, the centre was closed during the weekend.

"We are confident that these issues will be rectified shortly and we will be open again from Monday.

"We apologise to our patients and thank them for their cooperation at this difficult time."

Belfast Telegraph