GP and emergency units struggle to cope over Northern Ireland bank holiday
There are fresh fears over the future of the health service in Northern Ireland as emergency departments and GPs struggled to cope over the bank holiday weekend.
The concerns come as NHS staff and patients brace themselves for the impact of £70m proposed cuts in the health service budget here amid a political vacuum and absence of a health minister.
However, waiting times for unscheduled care over the bank holiday reveal the health service is already plunging deeper into crisis, even before winter pressures and the looming cuts are imposed.
According to official figures, the average waiting time in a number of A&E units yesterday morning was almost six hours.
And a doctor working in the already beleaguered GP out-of-hours service said there were up to 70 people waiting for a call back at any one time on Monday night.
Antrim GP Dr Allen McCullough said: "There were continually 50 to 70 calls awaiting triage throughout my shift and the overall activity showed at least 200 cases active on the system in all areas of Dalriada Urgent Care.
"Call back from patients ringing was about four hours for routine, and we were trying to call back urgent cases as soon as possible within an hour."
Dr McCullough also said he had been told that staff at the emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital were advising of a seven-hour wait for treatment and recommending patients leave and see their GP the following day if possible.
The Southern Trust also came under fire after a South Down MLA claimed the A&E services were "gridlocked" and that "there was no GP cover in Banbridge or Craigavon" on Sunday night. Meanwhile, the South Eastern Trust was asking people to stay away from the Ulster Hospital's emergency department unless necessary to relieve pressure on the hospital yesterday morning.
The difficulties experienced by NHS staff to meet demand over the bank holiday weekend come as £70m is due to be slashed from the health budget.
The number of community care packages and non-urgent surgical procedures could be cut to help save money.
It is also proposed that the number of staff working in hospital wards will also be dramatically reduced.
The situation has prompted the British Medical Association (BMA) and Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to call for urgent action to tackle the crisis.
Janice Smyth, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: "If we don't see action taken very soon, we are going to see services collapse all over Northern Ireland.
"The health service is in urgent need of transformation and these cost-cutting measures are just more of what we have seen before that has actually resulted in a gross shortage of nurses. We need to be looking at measures to try and attract and retain staff, not drive them away." Dr Alan Stout, deputy chair of the BMA's GP committee, said: "We understand that the pressures are there in the health service, with or without the political instability.
"However, the political instability highlights the need to have leadership, direction and decision making.
"The health service needs change, and very, very quickly - at the moment the health service spends 49% of the Northern Ireland block grant and by 2025, if we continue to deliver health services as they are at the moment, it will require 80% of the block grant."
Meanwhile, the Alliance Party met with the South Eastern Trust yesterday to discuss the impending cuts.
The party's health spokesperson, Paula Bradshaw, said: "It is no exaggeration to state that the health and social care sector in Northern Ireland is going through an unprecedented crisis, which only can be addressed through a transformation process." The Department of Health was asked for comment but did not respond.