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Drop in numbers at A&E in Northern Ireland 'deeply worrying'

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Fears: Pam Cameron

Fears: Pam Cameron

David Pettard

Fears: Pam Cameron

A huge drop in the number of people attending accident and emergency departments in two Western Trust hospitals has been described as "deeply worrying" by the deputy chairman of Stormont's Health Committee.

DUP South Antrim MLA Pam Cameron was speaking after the Western Trust reported the number of people attending its A&Es had fallen by more than 40% between March 9 and April 26 compared to the same period last year.

During this period in 2019, a total 9,961 people attended the A&E at the Western Trust's Altnagelvin hospital in Londonderry, but the figure for 2020 was 5,379.

At the South West Acute Hospital the number visiting A&E during the seven week period in 2019 was 5,243 but this year it dropped to 3,253. This comes a month after it was revealed there had been a fall of up to 60% in the number of patients attending the Northern Trust's A&E departments.

Ms Cameron said that while it was commendable people were staying at home, it was imperative that those with serious non-Covid health emergencies continue to seek medical attention.

She said: "Confirmation by Western Health and Social Care Trust that there has been a 46% drop in people attending A&E (at Altnagelvin) is deeply worrying.

"It reiterates what clinicians working in emergency departments right across Northern Ireland are reporting."

Fears that people presenting with symptoms of serious medical conditions - such as heart failure or cancer - who would have previously attended an accident and emergency department but are staying at home have also been expressed.

Ms Cameron continued: "Advocacy charities such as NI Chest, Heart & Stroke have shared this concern, with research indicating those with heart problems and symptoms of a stroke have been reluctant to seek help at hospital during this crisis.

"At last week's Health Committee, I asked the Public Health Agency to strongly consider the public health messaging necessary to encourage people to not ignore the warning signs and to get help they need from a health professional. I am pleased that they intend to run the FAST campaign (about the key symptoms of a stroke) on social media and in GP surgeries and supermarkets.

"Whilst tackling Covid-19 remain a critical priority in the delivery of health and social care currently, it is also important that ministers signal a commitment and a plan to ramp up routine and elective services moving forward.

"We would encourage anyone experiencing symptoms requiring urgent attention to seek help through our GP or local emergency department."

The Director of Acute Hospitals at the Western Trust, Geraldine McKay, echoed Ms Cameron's call.

She said: "There has been a notable decrease in the number of attendances in our Emergency Departments (EDs) due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have compared attendances for the seven-week period from 9 March 2020 to 26 April 2020 and for the same period in 2019 for both Altnagelvin Hospital and South West Acute Hospital. We are very grateful to the public for their ongoing support for the health service during this difficult time and how well people locally have taken on board the message to Stay at Home and maintain Social Distancing.

"The Trust is urging the public not to put off seeking medical attention for urgent conditions."

No one from the Public Health Agency or the Department of Health was available.

Belfast Telegraph