The health service is facing a “very difficult winter”, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer has warned, as cases of Covid-19 are expected to surge over the coming weeks.
Sir Michael McBride said hundreds of coronavirus hospital admissions will lead to a “perfect storm” of additional pressures on the system.
He told the Assembly’s Health Committee that frontline medical staff have said it feels like the middle of winter as they prepare to deal with a sharp increase in Covid cases.
“Clearly, any additional admissions over and above the current level of activity will put significant pressures on the health service,” Sir Michael said.
“It feels like the middle of winter at this present moment in time.
“If you’re in discussion with our frontline staff, you will know that and hear that from them.
“That’s on the back of a very long, very difficult past 18 months. Staff are physically tired and exhausted.
“I think that’s something that we all must bear in mind.”
He also apologised for the “excessive” waiting lists, saying that people are waiting for beds because of ongoing pressures on the hospital system.
Health restrictions, including physical distancing, are still in place in hospitals.
Looking further ahead, I think we will face into very difficult winterDr Michael McBride
Sir Michael said the combination of restrictions and an increase in the number of people attending hospitals has led to excessive waiting times to access treatment.
“If you then imagine, potentially up to 400 to 600 additional Covid admissions on top of that by late summer into September time, then you can imagine this perfect storm of additional pressures,” he added.
“Looking further ahead, I think we will face into very difficult winter.”
He warned that it will be “very challenging” for staff who are already “tired and exhausted”.
Currently around 80% of the adult population in Northern Ireland has received at least their first dose of a vaccine, with a push on to reach 90% by the end of July.
Sir Michael said that pressure on the health service can be reduced by half if 90% of the population is fully vaccinated.
A number of walk-in vaccination clinics are operating across Northern Ireland in a bid to encourage more people to get the jab.
Health Minister Robin Swann said 180 people received a jab at a pop-up vaccination clinic at Queen’s University in Belfast on Wednesday.
“The people on site engaged just to see why they’d walked in and why they didn’t book an appointment and they said ‘Well, sure, this is handier’,” Mr Swann told the Health Committee.
He said the younger age group is not as engaged as had been hoped, “but if it’s on their doorstep, if they can walk past and walk in they are doing that.
“So we are doing more work in regards to that.
“There are a number of TV advertisements now going to run over July and August, supported by UK Government as well, so they’re UK-wide.”
Later on Thursday, Mr Swann and other health officials will meet representatives of the three main sporting organisations as part of a campaign to encourage young people to get vaccinated.
A number of appointment-free clinics are also being rolled out at meat factories to encourage minority groups to get the jab.