A leading Northern Irish medic has claimed July this year is “worse than any winter” the health service has ever experienced.
Dr Alan Stout, chair of the GP committee of the BMA, said the current pressure right across the system has never been seen in his lifetime and suggested not just this winter but “the next number of years” will be “extraordinarily difficult”.
Dr Stout was speaking to BBC NI’s Nolan Show amid rising levels of infection both in Northern Ireland and across the UK.
According to the latest figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the coronavirus subvariants Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 are driving increased infection.
The ONS said infections in Northern Ireland have reached the highest level since the beginning of April, with an estimated one in 17 having the virus in the week ending July 6.
Dr Stout said he did not see a need to re-introduce restrictions and said we “have to allow people to live as normal”, but added that we “have to be ready” and said people should be encouraged to focus on “personal responsibility” like wearing a mask when indoors.
“If there is ever a quiet period in health it is July, [but] July this year is worse than any winter that we have ever experienced in health,” he said.
“If you look right across health, look at the pressures in general practice – we have never had pressure like this in general practice. Never ever in my lifetime.
“Look at the ED [Emergency Department] waits, we have never had as many people waiting as long as they are waiting. Look at our waiting lists, which every single time the figures come out they have gone up again.
“This is the worst any of us have seen it and this is July. We don’t know what is going to happen.
“Whether it is a Covid variant or just the normal winter pressures... I don’t think anybody is under any illusion, not just this winter, but the next number of years are going to be extraordinarily difficult.”
The warning from Dr Stout comes after Health Minister Robin Swann said pay increases recommended for health workers in Northern Ireland could not be implemented without an agreed Stormont budget.
Dr Stout said the situation now reminded him of December 2019, during the last Stormont suspension, when nurses took industrial action over pay.
On Tuesday, an independent review body recommended that health service staff should be awarded a pay increase of £1,400 for 2022/23.
There is a separate recommendation of a 4.5% increase for doctors and dentists.
Health unions have already signalled their discontent over the offers.
Dr Stout said one of the biggest problems facing the service at present is within the workforce.
“It is a thoroughly demoralised workforce as well, with a lot of recent messaging,” he added.
“We have to address that. We have to start to protect and value our workforce. We are doing the exact opposite with a lot of the things coming out at the moment.”