Northern Ireland’s fragile health service is stepping closer to meltdown as one health trust has been forced to cancel 27 elective operations.
A rise in Covid-19 cases and a resulting increase in the number of people with the virus who need hospital treatment prompted the Western Trust to activate its surge plan.
The cancelled operations are the latest indication that the health service in Northern Ireland is struggling to cope with demand.
It is understood health trusts have been given strict instructions to cancel elective procedures in only the most extreme circumstances as health bosses strive to tackle Northern Ireland’s spiralling hospital waiting lists.
Geraldine McKay, director of acute services at the Western Trust, said: “Patients that require hospital admission with Covid-19 have risen sharply in recent days and presently we have 20 positive Covid-19 patients in Altnagelvin.
“In addition, we have admitted two new Covid-19 patients in South West Acute Hospital (SWAH), Enniskillen, meaning that we currently have six Covid-19 patients in total in SWAH.
“This number is a considerable rise compared with the small number of cases in our hospitals last week and we would note these numbers are fluid and can change daily.
“As a result, the trust has now implemented our initial surge plan and this will be kept under constant review.
“The impact of the rise in hospital and community cases has meant that the trust has postponed 12 elective procedures at Altnagelvin and has also resulted in a reduction in our surgical capacity, with 15 patients having their procedures postponed on July 8 and 9.
“We apologise to the 27 patients in total who have been affected, all of whom have now been contacted by the trust. We have also already moved to reschedule their appointment dates as soon as is possible to do so.” The cancelled operations come as the South Eastern Trust said the emergency department at the Ulster Hospital was coming under increasing pressure, while the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service was also understood to be struggling to cope with demand.
On Thursday, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride provided a bleak assessment of the months ahead as he urged more people to come forward for vaccination.
He added: “Clearly any additional admissions over the current level of activity will put significant pressures on the health service.
“It feels like the middle of winter at this present moment in time, if you were in discussion with our frontline staff you will know that and hear that from them, and that’s on the back of a very long and very difficult past 18 months.
“Staff are physically tired and exhausted and I think that is something we all must bear in mind.
"Also I can only but apologise for the excessive waits that people waiting for beds, and their families are experiencing, in our hospitals because of the pressures.
“If you imagine, potentially up to 400 or 600 additional Covid admissions on top of that by late summer into September time, then you can imagine the perfect storm of additional pressures.
"Looking even further ahead, I think we face a very difficult winter.
“None of us have been exposed to any respiratory viruses over the past period of time, apart from Covid and we will then see probably quite a challenging seasonal flu season, a return of other respiratory viruses in children, so I think we are facing into a very difficult next number of months and then potentially a very challenging winter period, with tired, exhausted staff.
“It is going to be a very challenging period for frontline staff and indeed for the people that we serve but we all can reduce those pressures by about half if we get to 90% of vaccine uptake and that’s why it’s really, really important that we maximise this opportunity now.”