Public urged not to phone 999 unless in emergency
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) is operating under “extreme pressure” and has urged the public not to call 999 unless they urgently require medical assistance over the bank holiday weekend.
The emergency service issued the statement on Friday after the contents of an internal email was leaked to the Belfast Telegraph revealing the NIAS had asked for assistance from the PSNI and NI Fire and Rescue Service.
The NIAS counterpart in the Republic – the National Ambulance Service (NAS) – is also on standby to provide support in Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for the Republic’s Health Service Executive (HSE) confirmed the situation, saying: “We will be providing assistance to the NIAS this weekend given the likely increase in emergency calls.”
The NAS last provided support on this side of the border last December due to pressures on our health system.
The Ambulance Service has also warned those with less serious conditions will “potentially face lengthy delays” while waiting for an ambulance response and, for that, it “would like to apologise in advance”.
A NIAS spokesperson explained the situation has arisen due to a number of factors, including staff leveling due to the impact of the pandemic, demand on services and long turnarounds at emergency departments.
"As we face into a bank holiday weekend, NIAS anticipates that the pressure on the Service will not reduce and would ask that, before calling 999, the public consider if other care options are available to them," they said.
"Including whether their journey to hospital, physically, requires ambulance transport. NIAS needs to protect our emergency response for those calling with immediately life threatening and serious conditions."
They added: “We would ask those, who will face lengthy delays, not to call back on the 999 line to check on the arrival time of an ambulance, previously requested, as this adds to the workload of an already overstretched control room.
"An ambulance will be dispatched at earliest possible opportunity based on the clinical need of patients.”
The contents of the email reveals that the NIAS has approached its training team and students for assistance this weekend.
A source told the Belfast Telegraph: “You really do not want to get sick this weekend. Part of the problem is long waits at the hospital whereby ambulances are waiting hours and are taken off the road as a result."
The NIAS said it carefully monitors “levels of activity and available resources to ensure the ongoing delivery of the highest levels of patient care” under what it calls its Resource Escalation Action Plan (REAP).
Under this plan, the NIAS is operating currently at level four, which the spokesperson explained is categorised as “extreme pressure”.
"The current situation is reflective of that across Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland,” they added.
NIAS did not disclose if the PSNI and NIFRS would be providing support this weekend, but it added that previously under contingency measures, it has provided training to both services, to ensure that its own clinicians can respond to more clinical urgent calls.
"We are grateful for their support in this and also to the National Ambulance Service from Republic of Ireland, who have previously provided support at times of extreme pressure,” they said.
"Support from all three organisations is dependent upon their own capacity to release staff.”
The HSE spokesperson explained: “Our plan is to support our colleagues in the NIAS to maintain service delivery and pre-hospital care during this time. This support will not impact in any way on the National Ambulance Service’s normal operations and care delivery.”
PSNI, NIFRS and the NIAS Unison branch have been asked for comment.