A&E crisis at three health trusts is blamed on shortage of 3,000 nurses
Emergency departments across Northern Ireland were at breaking point this week, with three different health trusts asking people to stay away unless they had a life-threatening illness or injury.
The Royal College of Nursing has predicted the situation will only worsen unless what they say is a shortfall of 3,000 nurses is addressed.
More than 140 people were waiting to be seen at one time at Craigavon Area Hospital's emergency department (ED) on Monday.
And on Tuesday staff at Antrim Area Hospital had to deal with 100 patients waiting to either be seen or waiting to be admitted on to a ward.
The Western Trust faced similar pressures on Thursday when at one point 72 people were waiting to be seen at the A&E of Altnagelvin, while 20 more were waiting on a hospital bed.
High volumes of people attending A&E is usually associated with the winter months, but Rita Devlin, head of professional development at the RCN Northern Ireland, said more nurses are needed in every trust.
She said: "Unfortunately the problems being experienced in our emergency departments are as a result of wider systemic failures and are not a reflection on the desire of nursing and other health care staff to provide high standards of care.
"We currently have nearly 3,000 nursing vacancies in the health and social care sector in Northern Ireland.
"This puts pressure on the entire system and particularly on our emergency departments, which are often the entry point into hospital for many patients.
"Staff are doing their best, but are increasingly frustrated at the lack of transformation that our services require.
"The levels of nursing vacancies are not helped by the fact that nurses in Northern Ireland are currently the worst paid in the UK. This makes it difficult to recruit and retain the nurses we need."
A spokeswoman for the Health and Social Care Board said an increasing number of older people with multiple health problems has been a central factor in the growing demands in A&E.
She said: "Hospitals across Northern Ireland are continuing to experience serious pressures, resulting in growing numbers of patients experiencing long waits in emergency departments.
"The situation reflects wider pressures on the health and social care system, involving staffing, community care and bed capacity.
"A central factor behind the rising demand is the increasing numbers of older people with multiple health problems - often requiring longer inpatient stays and more complex community care packages when they are discharged.
"These pressures are impacting not only emergency departments, but on services across the hospital and the wider health and social care system.
"We are sorry that too many patients continue to experience long waits. All feasible steps to ease the pressures are being taken. Everyone of us can also all do our bit to help staff help us. This means using services appropriately and doing all we can to help stay well."
Latest statistics show the number of people waiting more than 12 hours in Northern Ireland's emergency departments in June was more than double the same time last year.
The target was breached more than 2,800 times in June 2019, compared to 1,365 in June 2018.