Sixteen members of staff at Craigavon Ambulance Station have been forced to take time off work following a Covid-19 outbreak.
The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that 10 staff members from the Southern Division base tested positive for the virus following a social event — believed to be a golf trip to the Republic — and a further six have had to self-isolate and are unavailable for work.
The head of the ambulance service, speaking to the BBC on Thursday morning, confirmed the staff had been on a golf trip but stressed they had not been in contact with patients. He said they were not seriously ill and their isolation period was coming to an end.
With 53 members of staff stationed in Craigavon, that means more than a quarter of the workforce is unable to fulfil duties at a time when the pressure on the NI Ambulance Service (NIAS) is already stretched to the limit.
A spokesperson for the Ambulance Service said: “Ten members of staff from Southern Division who attended a social event outside of work have advised that they tested positive for Covid-19.
“As a result of this a further six members of staff have been following advice to self-isolate and are unable to come to work.
“The situation is being managed in line with public health guidance and NIAS procedures.”
Craigavon Area Hospital is at the centre of a separate independent investigation following the deaths of several patients from Covid-19 in the past few weeks.
Fourteen patients on the haematology ward were confirmed to have the virus in a cluster identified at the start of this month, while another patient on Ward 3 South also tested positive.
Six patients died from Covid at the hospital in total.
At that time, 21 members of staff, across two separate wards, tested positive for Covid-19 and a further 56 were also self-isolating because of potential contact with the virus.
Health Minister Robin Swann has already come under pressure at the Assembly for independent investigations into coronavirus deaths in hospitals here.
Eleven patients have died in Craigavon Area Hospital and at Daisy Hill in Newry.
The Southern Trust said a level three serious adverse incident (SAI) investigation will be carried out into the outbreak at Daisy Hill. An SAI into the outbreak at Craigavon Area Hospital is already under way.
The deaths of two patients at Antrim Area Hospital are also to be subject to a high-level probe.
Dr Guduru Gopal Rao, a microbiologist in London North West University NHS Trust, will lead the independent review into the Southern Trust outbreaks. It is understood that ambulance coverage last weekend was, for a limited time, reduced to just two vehicles to cover the southern area, which runs from Dungannon in the west to Kilkeel in the east.
The NIAS said that while the service has demonstrated a huge commitment and professionalism in recent months in providing a service and dealing with the pressure associated with Covid-19, the demand for the service is continuing to increase.
“NIAS is facing increased challenges in maintaining planned levels of cover across all of our divisions across Northern Ireland. Regrettably, this will mean that on occasions our response times to some calls will be delayed,” the spokesman said.
“We will continue to target our resources at the most seriously ill or injured to ensure they receive the fastest and most appropriate response to suit their clinical need.
“However, NIAS envisages that response times to those patients whose clinical need is less urgent will be longer than might be expected.
“At all times, NIAS will seek to respond to all calls in the shortest possible time.
“The reasons for this anticipated drop in cover/delayed response times are a result of a number of factors which individually would not be without impact but, when combined, have a much greater impact on our ability to provide cover.”
The spokesperson also said the pressure on the service is expected to increase over winter.
A virus expert at Queen's University Belfast has said he's "cautiously optimistic" there may be a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the year - but said there's still a possibility trials may fail at a very late stage.