Queues of ambulances formed outside several hospitals in Northern Ireland as pressure continued to mount on the region’s over-capacity health service.
The scenes unfolded as First Minister Arlene Foster participated in a call with other UK political leaders to review the planned relaxation of restrictions on household gatherings over Christmas.
No decisions were taken, with Stormont ministers set to convene to discuss the situation on Thursday amid intensifying calls from medics to rethink the relaxations and introduce fresh measures to curb the spread of the virus.
At that meeting, health minister Robin Swann will propose a series of new restrictions to executive colleagues.
“I will be bringing a paper to the executive on Thursday with a number of recommendations,” he told MLAs on Tuesday.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride has warned that the region now faces one of the most challenging periods of the pandemic after the most recent circuit break lockdown failed to drive down infections.
Hospital capacity across the region stood at 104% on Tuesday.
At one point outside Antrim Area Hospital, 17 ambulances containing patients were lined up outside the ED. Doctors were treating patients in the car park.
Director of operations at the Northern Trust Wendy Magowan said one patient has waited 10 hours in an ambulance overnight.
“We have never known that in Antrim hospital, that simply does not happen, but there wasn’t a safe area to bring that patient in,” she told the PA news agency.
The deaths of a further six people with Covid-19 were announced on Tuesday, bringing the region’s toll to 1,135.
Another 486 new cases of the virus were recorded in 24 hours.
Dr McBride said Northern Ireland is not where it needed to be in terms of case numbers at the start of a fortnight of festive relaxations, including a five day period of increased household gatherings over Christmas.
“The circumstances we are currently facing are extremely troubling,” he said.
“We are not where we need to be or should be in terms of the transmission of the virus.”
Dr McBride said it was important that arrangements for the festive season were “kept under review”.
Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said there was no evidence to date to show that the circuit-break had brought down case numbers.
Prof Young said there had instead been two weeks of a “slow and steady increase” in case numbers.
He said data of traffic flow show that many people did not heed the “stay at home” message over the circuit break.
He said the R number was “at or a little bit above 1”.
“That’s certainly not where we hoped it would be,” he said.
Prof Young added: “We’re seeing a gradual increase in cases at the moment and that will undoubtedly feed through to hospital admissions and in due course critical care occupancy and unfortunately deaths.”
“And those increases will come on the top of already high baseline levels in terms of hospital beds being occupied by Covid patients.”
The Department of Health #COVID19 dashboard has been updated with latest data.— Department of Health (@healthdpt) December 15, 2020
486 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Sadly, a further 6 deaths have been reported (3 of the deaths were outside the 24 hour period).https://t.co/YN16dmGzhv pic.twitter.com/wnKczOT8eX
Describing the situation at the Northern Trust, Ms Magowan said 43 people were waiting for an emergency bed at Antrim Area Hospital and 21 at the Causeway Hospital on Tuesday morning.
She said that 100 of the Antrim hospital’s 400 beds were occupied by Covid-19 patients.
“The pressure has been building, we are seeing our Covid figures here in Antrim hospital increasing,” she said. “Day in day we’re not seeing this second surge starting to abate at all.”
Prof Young earlier flagged particular concern about infection rates in Mid and East Antrim council area, which is covered by the Northern Trust.
He said a case prevalence of 313 per 100,000 people was more than 100 cases higher than any other area of Northern Ireland.
Prof Young said the reproduction number was expected to rise “significantly above” 1 during the current period of relaxations.
He urged anyone who was planning to take advantage of the relaxations on household gatherings over Christmas to stop socialising now.
“What I’d be saying to anybody who is planning to bubble, particularly if you’re going to be seeing an elderly or vulnerable relative, for the next 10 days you should be seeing nobody else,” he said.
Dr McBride urged people to avoid socialising or shopping in busy retail spaces ahead of Christmas.
“We can’t have it both ways,” he said.
“You know we can’t be out and about and socialising, whether it’s in restaurants or whether it’s doing Christmas shopping and mingling crowds indoors in shopping centres or elsewhere and then feel it’s all going to be okay when we meet up with older relatives and people who are clinically extremely vulnerable over the Christmas period. It doesn’t add up. That is not how it works.”
Dr McBride also confirmed that no cases of the new variant of Covid-19 had been detected in Northern Ireland.
He said there was “no need for alarm” about the emergence of the latest variant.