Ambulance Service staff crisis goes on as politicians seek urgent meeting
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has operated for a fourth consecutive night with major staff shortages.
It emerged yesterday that the service (NIAS) was expected to be short of 12 crews last night.
However, it was not planning to base crews from the Republic of Ireland in any of its ambulance stations, as was the case on Friday and Saturday night.
NIAS has in place a reciprocal agreement with the ambulance service in the Republic of Ireland, in which they assist one another when required.
NIAS paramedics, particularly those working in border areas, frequently attend and provide support at incidents in the Republic and vice versa.
However, it is believed to be the first time a crew from the National Ambulance Service has been stationed in Northern Ireland for an entire shift.
Ahead of yesterday's fourth night of major staff shortages, NIAS chief executive Michael Bloomfield apologised again for delays being experienced by patients. The impact on patient safety as a result of the staffing crisis is not yet known.
As well as assistance from colleagues from the Republic's National Ambulance Service, NIAS has been relying upon private and voluntary ambulance providers to plug the gaps in service in recent days.
It has also appealed to staff to come in and work additional shifts.
Mr Bloomfield has thanked employees for "stepping up to the plate" and volunteering to take on extra shifts.
The current situation has arisen as a result of a number of reasons, including increased demand for ambulances, a high number of staff on sick leave, and lengthy turnaround times at emergency departments.
Staff have repeatedly spoken out about horrendous working conditions, with one paramedic even taking to social media to warn that NIAS employees are being driven to the brink of suicide.
Politicians, including Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw, Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan and SDLP health spokesman Mark H Durkan, are seeking meetings with the NIAS following on from the difficulties experienced over the past four nights.
Mr Durkan said: "There is a serious and recurring challenge with ambulance cover across the north based on increasing demand and diminishing resources.
"Deep-seated issues including the recruitment and training of new staff need to be addressed as a matter of utmost urgency.
"This weekend alone the service regionally were 14 crews short and had to rely on assistance from the Republic.
"I know that Derry in particular sought ambulance staff from Donegal in attempts to plug the gap.
"It is unacceptable that the service has been left with no other option than to appeal to overworked ambulance staff on their much-needed days off in order to have some semblance of a functioning first-response provision.
"Within the last fortnight, I highlighted the gargantuan pressures placed on ambulance services within the Western Trust area, in particular an incident which could have proved fatal given the lack of ambulance cover available."
Mr Durkan said it is unacceptable that already overstretched staff are being expected to take on the burden of working additional shifts as a result of resource deficits. He added: "I have requested a meeting with senior leaders in the Ambulance Service to discuss the matter and the level of support needed to operate at full capacity.
"We are all concerned with securing patient safety. The Ambulance Service continues to demonstrate immense leadership - that should be matched by politicians."
Mr Sheehan called the staff shortages "extremely concerning".
"With several major events taking place over the weekend involving tens of thousands of people, this shortage is even more alarming," he said.
"It is welcome that other options have been explored such as all-Ireland cooperation between the two ambulance services on the island to ensure emergency cover is provided but it is clear a longer term solution is required."