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Coronavirus: Venues could become field hospitals as a 'tsunami of sick people' looms for Northern Ireland

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Grim prediction: Dr Tom Black

Grim prediction: Dr Tom Black

Grim prediction: Dr Tom Black

Some of Northern Ireland's most popular tourist attractions could be turned into field hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients.

It comes as a leading doctor has warned that coronavirus will hit Northern Ireland "longer, harder and crueller than anyone can imagine" within the next three weeks.

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Council in Northern Ireland, made the grim prediction as new ethical guidelines for doctors are being finalised ahead of the expected surge in Covid-19 cases.

The guidance on how to prioritise which patients should receive life-saving treatment is due to be issued imminently.

At the same time, health officials are looking at a range of options for temporary respiratory hospitals that are expected to be required to meet demand for hospital beds in the coming weeks.

While no final decisions have been made about the location of the field hospitals, the SSE Arena in Belfast, Titanic Belfast, Dundonald Ice Bowl and the Antrim Forum are all under consideration.

It is part of a wide-ranging and radical overhaul of the way healthcare is to be delivered as health service bosses prepare for up to 15,000 Covid-19 deaths in Northern Ireland.

Emergency departments, minor injury units, day procedure and outpatient units, are all being shut and services being relocated to ensure resources are best used during the expected spike in Covid-19 cases.

Urging the public to adhere to social distancing measures, Dr Black said: "We are doing everything possible to prepare for the surge.

"We are increasing the number of ventilators from 139 to 800, we are increasing testing from 200 to 1,100 a day, it has been a phenomenal response.

"Everything has been done right, but in saying that, we are going to be hit by a tsunami of sick people.

"When this hits, it's going to hit us very hard and we will struggle to get through the day.

The surge is going to be longer, harder and crueller than anyone can imagine and all we can do is do our best, that's all anyone can do at the moment Dr Tom Black

"There will be so many people sick at the same time, so many people needing hospital beds, needing assessment, HDU beds, ventilators and chest x-rays.

"God willing, we will get through it, but it will still be very difficult.

"There is a lot of fear and apprehension amongst the medical profession, there is a feeling of foreboding and great worry that there is something very difficult ahead of them.

"There is fear for themselves, but more so for their patients and their families and the possibility that they could bring the virus home.

"The surge is going to happen in the next two to three weeks and will probably go on for four to six weeks, although we are looking at three months to get through this.

"The surge is going to be longer, harder and crueller than anyone can imagine and all we can do is do our best, that's all anyone can do at the moment.

"At the moment we are coping, but the advice we are getting from our colleagues in New York is that you cope and you cope and you cope and you think you're going to be okay and then you fall off the cliff."

It emerged on Thursday that the emergency departments at Daisy Hill and Downe hospitals are to close in preparation for the upcoming surge in patients.

The Northern Trust was the latest trust to comment on the requirement to restructure services, including how care in the community will be provided, but it has not released specific details.

Dr Seamus O'Reilly, the trust's medical director, said: "As has already been indicated, Northern Ireland will require significantly more critical care capacity than is currently available. This is actively being considered at a regional level.

"Although there has been considerable modelling done within the trust to look at how we might maximise available critical care capacity within our own hospitals, it would be premature for us to say anything more at this point given that things could change very quickly."

Meanwhile, the BMA and the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) in Northern Ireland has written to family doctors to help allay their fears relating to the "significant implications" of the Covid-19 pandemic and the "anxieties and queries" about the development of Covid centres.

Speaking about the letter, chair of the RCGP in Northern Ireland, Dr Laurence Dorman, told the health committee this week: "Doctors are frightened, I am frightened, I am a father, I am a husband and I would never ask my GPs to do something that I wouldn't be prepared to do myself."

The letter, signed by Dr Dorman and the chair of the BMA's GP committee in Northern Ireland, Dr Alan Stout, explains: "This is a project and plan that has developed very rapidly in response to the growing concerns about the pandemic and the huge impact it is going to have on our population and on our healthcare system."

GPs have been told that the Covid-19 centres have been set up to allow clinical assessment of patients with confirmed or suspected coronavirus whose condition is deteriorating, and to enable primary care to continue to provide normal care to other patients to prevent "potentially catastrophic consequences".

Belfast Telegraph