Don't be ill next Wednesday... Northern Ireland health service to be reduced dramatically by staff walkouts
Health bosses have just one week to stop strike action by thousands of paramedics and nurses which is threatening to bring the health service to its knees next Wednesday.
A number of services will be exempt from the planned walk-outs, including immediately life-threatening emergencies, chemotherapy treatment and palliative care.
However, services in hospitals and the community next Wednesday will be vastly reduced and it is expected that PSNI response officers and the already overstretched GP out-of-hours service will be overwhelmed as a result.
Health workers are locked in a bitter battle with NHS bosses over pay and staffing levels, and with no agreement in sight a paramedic with more than 30 years of experience last night warned the public to expect widespread disruption next week.
"Wednesday will not be a good day to fall ill," he said.
"No paramedic is ever going to leave a patient lying on the side of the road, but the fact is the health service isn't safe as it is, people are already dying on hospital trolleys and while waiting for operations, or even just for a hospital appointment.
"We keep hearing this is about pay parity, and yes that is important, but more than that we're fighting to make the service safe again.
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"Staff are burnt out, nurses are doing the work of three or four of their colleagues, good nurses are frequently being reduced to tears, and it's the same for paramedics.
"Patients are lying for hours waiting for us to arrive, I've even turned up to jobs where cops have been sent to deal with someone who is in cardiac arrest because there aren't enough paramedics on the road.
"At the end of the day you can have the best surgeons in the world, the best consultants and the best hospital in the world, but it's no good if I bring in the person and they're dead."
The paramedic was speaking out as the RCN and Unison finalise plans for proposed strike action next Wednesday.
It can be revealed that, for 24 hours from 7am on December 18, Unison paramedics will respond to category one and two calls as normal.
Category one and two calls are immediately life-threatening and potentially serious incidents and account for less than half the 600 calls made to the service each day.
Examples of category one calls include a patient who isn't breathing, or is unconscious with noisy breathing, or having a seizure, or unconscious as a result of diabetes, or anyone experiencing anaphylactic shock.
Category two cases include patients who are not alert with abdominal or chest pain, or unconscious with effective breathing, suspected strokes and dangerous bleeding. However, according to instructions issued by Unison, members should not respond to any other type of call next Wednesday.
These include psychiatric patients who are not alert, a woman who has given birth without complications, a conscious overdose patient with abnormal breathing, and a person who has had a seizure but is breathing normally.
The information sent to Unison members has reminded them of the requirement to "provide emergency cover to protect life and limb".
They have been told to respond to category one and two calls as normal.
Transport for cancer and renal patients will not be disrupted either.
Call centre staff have been advised to attend work as normal to ensure that 999 calls are answered and prioritised.
According to the leaflet sent out by Unison, bosses at the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) have agreed not to escalate calls "simply to lessen the impact of the industrial action".
However, it continues: "It is important that members understand that the purpose of this action is to cause service disruption, whilst also protecting patients from harm."
Meanwhile, RCN members are staging 12-hour strike action throughout the day next Wednesday. Services that will not be affected by walkouts by RCN nurses include inpatient and outpatient chemotherapy, units providing palliative care, psychiatric intensive care units and intensive care units.
Paula Bradshaw, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said: "We have just one week to sort out this mess.
"Having spoken to nurses and paramedics, they see this strike action as the absolute last resort and at the end of years of raising the issues of pay parity, vacancies and safe staffing levels.
"It is incumbent upon all political parties to work together to do everything possible to ensure that the dispute is resolved and that health care workers and patients can move forward with their care and treatment as we move into the busy Christmas period."