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Covid centre at full capacity due to rapid spread of virus

Doctors are asked to ‘consider alternatives’ for any confirmed or suspected cases

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Dr John McSparran

Dr John McSparran

Dr John McSparran

A Northern Ireland Covid centre has reached capacity as the latest surge of cases continues to overwhelm the health service.

Family doctors in the Northern Trust area were contacted by email yesterday morning and told there were no more appointments available at the Covid centre in Ballymena.

Instead, they were asked to “consider alternatives” for any patient with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 who needed a face-to-face GP appointment.

However, Dr John McSparran, a GP based in Cushendall, hit out at the latest development and called on health bosses to explain the alternatives available to family doctors.

“I think this just sends out a mixed message,” he said.

“We have created this Frankenstein-type monster where we’re told we have to refer patients with confirmed or suspected Covid to a Covid centre in order to keep GP surgeries clean.

“We’re being told we have to keep these centres open and GPs have to work in them as the numbers rise again — but now we’re being told to find alternatives for patients without actually being told what the alternatives are.

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“I would like the Department to say what these alternatives are; do GPs see the patients themselves or do they send them to the emergency departments that are already overwhelmed?

“This is pushing everything back onto GPs again, who are also overwhelmed dealing with day-to-day work, the rise in Covid cases and manning Covid centres.”

Covid centres were set up last year in a bid to reduce the number of people with the virus who were being admitted to hospital.

They were also established so that anyone with a confirmed or suspected Covid infection could attend a face-to-face appointment with a GP, helping to reduce the risk of outbreaks in GP surgeries.

Plans were in place earlier this year to begin to stand down the Covid centres as the number of daily infections fell significantly. However, the move was halted with the arrival of the Delta variant in Northern Ireland and the anticipated subsequent spike in cases.

Yesterday’s development is the latest sign that Northern Ireland’s fragile health service is struggling to cope with the current Covid-19 wave, exacerbated by soaring hospital waiting lists and the demands of a busy bank holiday weekend.

The NI Ambulance Service made use of its mutual aid agreement with its counterparts in the Republic of Ireland over the weekend.

A number of Emergency Medical Dispatchers from the National Ambulance Service assisted NIAS control staff, while a crew of paramedics travelled from the Republic to work in Enniskillen.

Meanwhile, elective operations in the Western Trust were cancelled last Thursday and Friday as hospitals dealt with an increase in Covid-19 positive patients, while the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said ED waits are the worst ever seen.

Last Friday, when statistics were last released by the Department of Health, there were 64 Covid-19 inpatients, of which one person was in intensive care. Nine acute hospitals were operating over capacity, with 124 more beds in use than funded spaces and 199 people awaiting admission.

A statement from Dalriada Urgent Care, which runs the Covid centre in Ballymena, said: “Services continue to be under significant pressure from patients with Covid-like symptoms.

"Medical and support staff are working hard to provide services in difficult circumstances. If a GP has concerns about a particular patient they should be encouraged to contact the Covid centre directly.”


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