Experts warn NHS in Northern Ireland has fallen off the cliff edge as strikes loom
A stroke patient was one of hundreds of people languishing on a trolley for hours waiting for a hospital bed in the last week.
It comes as Northern Ireland's emergency departments (EDs) buckle under the pressure of the deepening health crisis.
Experts warned that the NHS has fallen off a cliff edge - just days before thousands of health workers stage further crippling strike action.
Paramedics, doctors and patients have spoken of horrendous conditions in hospitals across Northern Ireland in the past week, including:
- An elderly man with a suspected stroke spending a day and a half waiting for a hospital bed;
- 13 ambulances queuing outside Antrim Area Hospital on Thursday waiting to hand over patients;
- 400 patients waiting longer than 12 hours in emergency departments between Thursday and Friday;
- A paramedic with more than 40 years' experience describing the situation as "the worst" they have ever seen; and
- The average waiting time in EDs across Northern Ireland frequently reaching six hours.
The daughter-in-law of the stroke patient revealed her elderly relative waited almost 33 hours to be admitted to a ward last weekend.
She said her father-in-law became "delusional" after spending so much time on a trolley in such a busy environment.
"It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen on Saturday night into Sunday morning," she said.
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"You hear on the news about people wasting emergency departments' time but, hand on heart, every single person that visited while I was there was there for the right reasons.
"I was also taken aback by the patients themselves, as it wasn't all older people - it was a baby about three months old who I believe literally stopped breathing to a number of pregnant women, to broken arms, to a teenager who had Crohn's.
"As I was looking after my father-in-law, someone literally was sick on the floor next to me.
"I wanted so much to step in and help the staff as they are outstanding. I am a project manager where I try to make things efficient and I honestly could say not one member of the nursing or doctors' team were slacking.
"They were committed and as attentive as they could be and treated each patient as an individual, even though they were all literally squeezed into one place."
Dr Ian Crawford from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said of the situation: "I think that we have fallen over the edge of the cliff and the ground is rapidly racing up to meet us.
"The capacity is currently not there to meet demands facing services and as a result hard-working health and social care staff are left struggling to provide safe and high standards of care in the context of significant staff shortages."
All the health trusts have been posting on social media warning patients to expect long waits to be seen due to the number of people turning up looking for treatment.
They have appealed that people only go to ED when they need emergency care.
A photograph taken outside Antrim Area Hospital on Thursday evening showed nine ambulances queuing outside the unit, with claims that 13 paramedic crews were waiting at one point during the day.
One paramedic said: "I don't think I've ever seen it as busy as this before."
Another one said: "It hasn't let up for days now, they'll be running out of corridor space, too."
A spokeswoman from the Northern Trust said ambulance turnaround times at Antrim Area Hospital are "among the best in the region".
She continued: "Antrim Area Hospital Emergency Department received a significant number of ambulances in quick succession into an already busy ED at a stage on Thursday night.
"This inevitably led to a queue of ambulances for a short period of time.
"However, staff worked extremely hard to assess and treat these patients with minimum delay."
A different NHS worker said the ED at Craigavon Area Hospital was experiencing similar difficulties.
Meanwhile, another paramedic said: "It's the worst I have seen in over 40 years.
"We're finishing two hours late most shifts, breaks are usually late and usually interrupted and we're frequently waiting four hours and more to hand patients over.
"We do expect winter pressures at this time of year, especially around Christmas, but GPs are unavailable and the out-of-hours service just seem to be sending patients to ED by ambulance.
"Then you have patients disregarding advice and turning up to ED with colds and flu-like symptoms.
"I'm getting sent out to people who have rung 999 because they were started on antibiotics and they're not feeling better after only taking one or two tablets.
"At the same time, I'm being asked to check on people who aren't deemed to be an emergency but who actually are an emergency. The service is on its knees."
Joe McCusker from Unison said: "We have been warning for years that the situation was reaching a critical stage and we're now at the point where we are falling off the cliff edge.
"Unfortunately, very little has been done over the past few years and we have arrived at the situation we're in now.
"It's very difficult for our members, not only in terms of increased workload, but these are the people who are on the front line dealing with people in distress, waiting for 12 hours, some of them are elderly and very frail sitting in chairs and on trolleys."
The Belfast Telegraph reported this week how almost 4,000 people waited longer than 12 hours in packed EDs across Northern Ireland in October. However, the figures for December are likely to be much higher given the waits being endured by patients over the past week.
Fears are growing that further planned strike action next week could have a catastrophic effect on the already broken system.
Unison and the Royal College of Nursing are both pressing ahead with plans for widespread walk-outs in their fight for better pay and improved staffing and safety levels.
Thousands of RCN members will strike next Wednesday and Friday, while Unison members will also stage industrial action in various locations and services on Friday.
The misery being endured by patients and staff in the run-up to next week's planned nursing strikes is heaping further pressure on politicians to find a solution to the current impasse.
While the Department of Health's Permanent Secretary has said he cannot afford to fund pay rises for his staff, the Secretary of State has said he will only seek additional funding to meet unions' demands in the event of Stormont getting up and running again.
Julian Smith has given the political parties a deadline of January 13 to reinstate the Executive.
A spokeswoman from the Health and Social Care Board apologised for the delays being experienced by patients and said staff are working hard to reduce the impact on services.
"We can assure the public that anyone who needs to use an ED for urgent or life-threatening conditions will continue to receive access to safe, high-quality services from our highly skilled and committed staff," she said.
Unison members’ strike action across NI hospitals next Friday
The planned Unison action, in addition to work-to-rule already in place, includes:
lAll nursing staff staging strike action for first four hours of their shifts between 8am and 8pm on January 10, while support service staff, including homecare workers, will take other action short of strike.
South eastern Trust
12-hour strike from 8am to 8pm, involving all members at Ulster, Ards and Bangor hospitals on January 10.
24-hour overtime and bank ban at Lagan Valley and Downe hospitals beginning at 12.01am on January 10.
24-hour strike in relation to on-call rota in the trust excluding Causeway Hospital and surrounding geographical areas.
Three-hour strike from 9am to noon at all hospitals and community locations, excluding Causeway Hospital, by all admin workers, social workers, allied health professionals and estates department staff.
Four-hour strike covering two shifts from 4am and 8am and 8am to noon at all hospitals and community locations, excluding Causeway Hospital and geographical area, by all ED clerks and receptionists. Includes all admin workers, social workers, allied health professionals and estates department staff.
All staff on strike from 10am to 2pm on January 10.