Revealed: 928 patients faced 12-hour A&E wait over Christmas
Politicians called on to speed up reform
More than 15,600 patients were treated in Northern Ireland's main emergency departments between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day - with nearly 1,000 forced to endure waiting times of more than 12 hours.
The figures, released by the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) yesterday, show that an average of more than 1,700 patients per day poured through the doors of A&Es here at the peak of this year's festive season.
In the nine days from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day, a total of 15,626 patients were treated in the province's main emergency departments.
This represents an increase of 4% (559 patients) compared to last year and a 14% increase (1,856 patients) compared to 2015/16.
Significantly, 928 people had to wait longer than 12 hours to be seen, treated and either discharged or admitted to hospital.
The HSCB apologised to patients and their families for the "upset and inconvenience" caused by the long waits.
The new figures come at a time of unprecedented pressure on emergency departments here.
Over the festive period, health trusts took to social media to warn the public of the pressure A&E units were facing, and to appeal to staff who were on leave to come in to work.
In a statement issued yesterday, the HSCB said that emergency departments across Northern Ireland "continue to be under significant pressure".
A spokesman said: "Plans have been put in place across the health and social care system to manage increased pressures at this time of year.
"However, as a result of increased demand on top of an already very busy system, the level of complex and serious conditions, particularly amongst the growing frail and elderly population, the prevalence of flu and other respiratory conditions at this time of year, and the challenges of helping patients to return home after a hospital stay, some patients have had to wait more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital.
"We fully understand the upset and inconvenience this causes to patients and their families and apologise to them for it. We can assure the public that anyone who needs to use an emergency department for urgent or life-threatening conditions will continue to receive access to safe, high quality services from our highly skilled and committed staff.
"The public are reminded that they should only attend hospital emergency departments for urgent and life-threatening conditions. There are a range of alternative services that people can access if they do not need emergency care."
The HSCB added that it was working with colleagues across health trusts, the Public Health Agency, NI Ambulance Service and Primary Care to address the pressures, and that the patients most in need of urgent treatment would continue to be prioritised by staff.
The organisation warned that those with "less urgent conditions" would have to wait longer.
The HSCB also paid tribute to the "commitment and professionalism" of healthcare staff, who it said had "worked tirelessly throughout the holiday period to ensure that patients receive the care they need as quickly and safely as possible".
Representing the HSCB, Seamus O'Reilly, medical director of the Northern Trust, told BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme: "It's not minor complaints that are clogging up our departments - it is genuinely sick elderly patients."
He added: "This isn't a performance issue, this is a capacity issue, and we are looking at how we can increase that extra capacity to move people off the corridors, to move them into the appropriate wards where they can be nursed properly."
Referring to the restrictions on implementing health service reform due to the current political instability, he said: "We need reform, we need transformation. There certainly is a commitment from everybody who has a say in the provision of health and social care in Northern Ireland that we move forward with that transformation. It would be fair to say that the civil servants are already moving forward on transformation of the health and social care system in Northern Ireland, but, yes, if the politicians were in Stormont and if we have a health minister then we could move that forward at pace."
On Tuesday, the South Eastern Trust said its emergency departments, particularly at the Ulster Hospital, had faced unprecedented pressure over the festive period due to an increase in attendances and the "complexity of illnesses and patients treated".
It also issued an appeal on Twitter for off-duty staff to come in to work on Tuesday night - the second such appeal this week.
Meanwhile, the Northern Trust launched a Twitter appeal for nursing staff and healthcare assistants to volunteer to work, revealing that Antrim Area Hospital and the Causeway Hospital were facing "severe pressure".
The trust also brought in four St John Ambulance volunteers to work at Antrim Area Hospital on New Year's night due to pressures.