Chief’s ‘regret’ as ambulance cover was reduced to 40% of its target levels on Saturday
Ambulance cover in the Southern Trust area on Saturday was 40% of planned levels, it has emerged.
The NI Ambulance Service (NIAS) said the shortages were as a result of a number of factors, including staff vacancies, rostered leave, ongoing courses and absence as a result of illness.
It comes after a paramedic working in the Southern division said pressures facing the health service mean patients are dying in front of his eyes.
The whistleblower made a series of devastating claims about the safety of patients and said he and his colleagues are becoming increasingly distressed by the situation.
He said he had witnessed an elderly patient several months ago who had suffered a stroke but who waited so long for an ambulance that she missed the deadline for clot-busting treatment.
Robert Sowney, interim director of operations at NIAS, said: "It is a source of regret to me whenever ambulance cover is depleted due to lack of available resources and the potential impact this may have on the community we serve.
"Demand for NIAS services has increased significantly over recent years without a corresponding increase in ambulance resources.
"We are working to address the issue and fill existing vacancies with ongoing regional recruitments and training.
"A Paramedic Foundation Degree programme commenced in January 2019 in partnership with Ulster University and 48 students are expected to qualify in November 2019."
He said 48 emergency medical technicians - staff not trained to the same level as paramedics - have completed their training and described them as "a welcome addition to the front line".
Mr Sowney said further training programmes are planned to start later this year.
He also said that NIAS has identified, through an independent demand and capacity review, that more than 120 paramedics will be required for the implementation of a new clinical response model. Full benefits of the new scheme will be seen by 2021/22, he added.
He said: "I would like to express my gratitude to those staff, on the front line and in ambulance control, who continue to work tirelessly to ensure that an ambulance response is provided to those who have an immediate and life-threatening need."
Meanwhile, an NIAS spokesman said there are contingency plans in place to mitigate against reduced levels of cover.
He added: "These include use of non-emergency staff to support A&E. This cover is further supplemented by voluntary and private ambulance services (VAS/PAS).
"The VAS/PAS are used by ambulance control to deal with lower acuity calls in order to keep our emergency crews free for more serious, life-threatening calls.
"Emergency ambulance control manages available resources on a regional basis to ensure the nearest available and appropriate resource is despatched to a call in the most timely manner."