Patients dying in front of our eyes, says Northern Ireland ambulance crisis whistleblower
A paramedic has said patients are dying before his eyes because of a dangerous lack of ambulances and staff.
The medic said there were only four crews covering the entire Southern division on Saturday night, with the likes of Newry, Craigavon and Banbridge without ambulance cover.
According to the health service employee, in one particularly distressing incident several months ago, a woman in her 70s suffered a stroke and went without vital treatment because she waited so long for an ambulance.
He also said police are being sent to deal with medical emergencies, including cardiac arrests, when paramedics are too busy to attend.
"We are heading, if we're not already there, towards a cliff edge," he said.
"It's major incident time, I believe.
"Management don't want to have to hit that nuclear option, but it's upon us now. This can't go on."
The comments come two weeks after the Belfast Telegraph revealed a paramedic working in Belfast had taken to Facebook to warn that Northern Ireland Ambulance Service staff are becoming increasingly distressed by their working conditions.
He warned that paramedics are being pushed to the brink of suicide as a result of the pressure they are working under.
Roy Beggs, UUP health spokesman, called on Northern Ireland Ambulance Service boss Michael Bloomfield to take urgent action to address patient safety and the well-being of staff.
"This is alarming on a number of fronts," Mr Beggs said.
"It is alarming that patients are having delayed access to hospital, but on top of that there is currently a review of stroke services and part of that is the introduction of specialist units which will be able to provide services on a 24/7 basis.
"This will necessitate more travel and use of the ambulance service in order to get patients to hospital and if we don't have an ambulance service that can provide that, it means that the consultation would appear to be on very shaky ground."
The whistleblower paramedic said he has spoken out in a desperate bid to improve conditions for staff and patients.
"We are watching patients literally die in front of our eyes," he said. "There are dangerously low levels of ambulance cover; things have been getting bad but Saturday night was absolutely unbelievable - there were no crews in Newry, Craigavon or Banbridge.
"There were four crews in the whole of the Southern division when there should be 11.
"Staff are so burned out, sickness levels are through the roof and people are so exhausted from their normal working week that they can't face doing overtime.
"We're doing 13, 14, 15 hours without a break to even so much as go to the toilet. Staff are being pushed to their absolute limits.
"Where there is low level in one area, crews are pulled in to soak up the calls only to leave their own area without cover.
"People who have had heart attacks and stroke patients are being put at risk.
"I witnessed one woman miss out on clot retrieval treatment after she'd had a stroke because of a delay in getting her an ambulance.
"Basically, it has to be done within four hours of having a stroke, but she waited so long that she missed the deadline by 20 minutes.
"It's very sad and even more so because it's preventable.
"Single guys are being sent out in rapid response vehicles to deal with the likes of stroke and cardiac arrests, but they're in cars and can't take the patient to hospital.
"They're stuck there, watching their patients deteriorate while they wait for an ambulance.
"We're watching patients die in front of you, knowing if they had got an ambulance two hours before, they might have been stabilised.
"When there isn't an ambulance crew available, police are being tasked to the patient until an ambulance becomes available."
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said it had experienced "difficulty in providing full ambulance cover" in the Southern Trust area. Available cover was 40% of planned levels.
An NIAS spokesman said: "The reduced levels of cover were the result of a number of factors including staff vacancies, rostered leave, ongoing courses and sickness absences.
"NIAS has in place a number of contingency plans to mitigate against reduced levels of cover. These include use of non-Emergency staff to support A&E. This cover is further supplemented by Voluntary and Private Ambulance Services (VAS/PAS). The VAS/PAS are used by ambulance control to deal with lower acuity calls in order to keep our Emergency Crews free for more serious, life threatening calls," he said.
Robert Sowney, Interim Director of Operations at NIAS, said: “It is a source of regret to me whenever ambulance cover is depleted due to lack of available resources and the potential impact this may have on the community we serve.
"Demand for NIAS services has increased significantly over recent years without a corresponding increase in ambulance resources. We are working to address the issue and fill existing vacancies with ongoing regional recruitments and training."