The health service in Northern Ireland was inching closer to collapse last night as the number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients was predicted to double within days.
As Craigavon and Daisy Hill hospitals struggled to cope yesterday, the Western Trust stepped in to help ease the pressure on the buckling system by offering to accept patients from the Southern Trust.
In response to an expected surge in patient numbers, the Western Trust appealed to all staff available to work to make their way to the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH). A social media post said: "Due to increasing pressures on the healthcare system regionally this evening, the SWAH will be accepting patient diverts. We would appeal to any off-duty staff who can come in this evening to help facilitate this to please make contact with the hospital or go directly to the hospital."
It came just hours after the chief executives of the six health trusts issued a statement warning the service is close to breaking point.
It said: "Although different parts of the country are in different stages of the third Covid-19 surge, and individual hospitals are reflecting this, the situation is very serious with modelling projections indicating that in the third week in January we will be trying to contend with double the number of Covid positive patients compared to the current position today, when several hospitals already have record numbers of patients.
"This is not a simple matter of putting up more beds. We need the staff to care for the increased number of patients. Pre-existing staffing pressures and staff absence because of Covid, and other reasons, mean that those staff simply aren't there." A further 1,112 new cases were announced yesterday, with 17 more deaths.
Meanwhile, Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, a member of the Stormont health committee, has written to Queen's University in Belfast after it emerged it has chartered flights into Northern Ireland from China at the height of the current surge.
She said: "At a time when the universities have been asked by the Northern Ireland Executive to provide lessons online where possible, it seems to defy logic that Queen's University is actually increasing the student population.
"At the very moment we are considering how to restrict people coming into Northern Ireland, to address worrying levels of community transmission, it seems to set a bad example. I await a response from Queen's University."
A spokeswoman from the university said it has put in place a range of safety measures, including returning students providing evidence of a negative test before travel, transport to accommodation and a requirement to self-isolate.
"All students are asked to take part in the asymptomatic testing programme upon their return to campus," she said.
"Given the difficulty of travelling and limited availability of flights, this may be the only opportunity for these students to travel to Belfast to complete their studies. Although not currently possible in most cases, many courses require students to complete practical work/assessments before the end of the academic year that cannot be done remotely."