The Medical Directors of Northern Ireland’s six Health trusts have issued a stark warning about Omicron-related staff absence over the coming weeks.
Speaking on behalf of Medical Directors across the region, Dr Seamus O’Reilly from the Northern Trust called on the public to do everything in their power to ease pressure on hospitals.
It comes as a record number of positive cases of Covid were recorded in Northern Ireland on Wednesday at 3,231.
The Omicron variant is also expected to become the dominant strain in the country within days.
He added that the possibility of higher numbers of patients being admitted to hospital with Omicron would only add to the “significant pressures” facing healthcare workers.
“It is vitally important that people only come to hospitals if their condition dictates that they need to be there,” he said.
"Emergency Departments are there to deal with genuine life-threatening emergencies for example chest pain, breathing difficulties, loss of consciousness, stroke or sudden confusion.”
He said it was vital that essential services could still operate under pressure, urging patients to seek alternatives where possible.
With the health trusts working as one to cope, he said this could mean ambulance services may not be able to take patients to their closest hospital due to demand.
“Ambulance response times will also be longer and people may have to consider making their own way to hospital if they are able to do so,” he said.
With staffing pressures not confined to acute hospitals, Dr O’Reilly said that healthcare workers in the community would also be affected.
“The problems in securing adequate domiciliary care provision both in the independent sector and Trusts have been well rehearsed over the past few months. Those problems won’t go away overnight and staff testing positive and having to self-isolate will continue to complicate the picture.”
Dr O’Reilly told patients and relatives that hospitals were not necessarily the safest place to stay once their period of acute care is finished.
“I do appreciate that many patient discharges are not straightforward but remaining in a hospital runs the very real risk of new complications occurring such as infections which, at the very least, will only make the situation worse,” he said.
“I’m asking patients and families to play their part and cooperate with us in accepting temporary placements in care homes when these are offered. In some cases, families may be able to provide temporary support at home.
“Overall, we hope the public will understand that the health and social care system is unlikely to be able to maintain some services due to inevitable staff shortages in the coming weeks. In that event we would appeal for their help and patience as staff do their best in what could be very difficult circumstances.”
Stating that every action had a consequence, Dr O’Reilly said the best thing people could do to help was get their vaccination or their booster jab, limit their contacts over Christmas and take lateral flow tests before meeting friends, family and loved ones.