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Northern Ireland emergency department waiting times triple over Christmas

The number of patients waiting more than 12 hours tripled from the same period last year
The number of patients waiting more than 12 hours tripled from the same period last year
Gareth Cross

Gareth Cross

Waiting times at Northern Ireland's hospitals emergency departments tripled over Christmas compared to the same period last year.

The number of people waiting more than twelve hours to be seen and discharged between December 20 and January 3 was 2,435, compared to 723 in the same period last year.

A spokesperson for the Health and Social Care Board said the delays were in part due to older, sicker patients attending emergency departments.

"These patients will often require longer in-patient stays and then more complex social care packages when they are ready to leave hospital," a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that "well documented workforce shortages" and the impact of flu and the norovirus played a part.

Figures from the Health and Social Care Board show that 1,052 of the people forced to wait more than twelve hours were over the age of 65.

There were 6% fewer adults discharged from the main hospitals, with 182 more admissions to hospital than there were discharges.

Across Northern Ireland the average waiting time for those to be seen and treated, but not admitted, was three hours 30 minutes. The average waiting time to be admitted to a hospital bed was 11 hours 45 minutes.

There was an 8% decrease in the number of people who attended emergency departments compared to the same period last year, but an 7% increase in the number of patients attending over 65.

Compared to the same period five years ago the overall attendance at emergency departments has increased by 9%, with an increase of 22% of those aged 65 and over.

While the figures highlight the pressure Northern Ireland's health service is currently under, the period did not coincide with strike action taken by nurses and other health staff.

Nurses took strike action on December 18 and January 8 with further action planned for Friday due to a lack of pay parity with colleagues in the rest of the UK and safe staffing levels.

“We would pay tribute to our staff who are working tirelessly to ensure that patients receive the care that they need," the Health and Social Care Board spokesperson said.

“Health service organisations have repeatedly made it clear that the 2019/20 winter period would again bring serious challenges. Despite the plans in place, some patients have had to wait for unacceptably long periods in Emergency Departments – for that we sincerely apologise.

“All HSC organisations will continue to work closely to ensure that the most urgent and sickest patients are prioritised. In the longer term, we need a radical transformation of services."

Paul Givan

DUP MLA Paul Givan said the fundamental reform envisaged through the Bengoa Report needed to be enacted.

He said the reforms had been held up by the power-sharing stalemate at Stormont.

"Reform will also require funding. There needs to be a massive investment. While the one billion pounds through the Confidence and Supply Agreement helped, it was a one-off injection of cash. We need strategic investment," the Lagan Valley MLA said.

"My heart goes out to staff who are doing their best but it is the system that needs fixed."

SDLP health spokesperson Mark H Durkan said the delays were having an impact on patients and their families.

"These figures are the latest in a long line of startling statistics about our health service. It is no longer at breaking point, but broken," the Foyle MLA said.

"Behind all of those numbers are patients and their families, waiting in anxiety for too long. Another reason, if it were ever needed, why we need to get back to work to sort it out."

UUP health spokesperson Roy Beggs described the figures as "frightening".

"Our hospitals and emergency units are in the midst of an unprecedented and deepening crisis. Never before have so many people been forced to wait, and wait for so long," he said.

“The UUP believes if there is no deal to restore Stormont by Monday, Westminster must intervene to immediately take back responsibility of health matters."

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