East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs has raised questions over whether hospitals across Northern Ireland were as prepared as many of those in the rest of the UK to handle the outbreak of this year’s winter flu.
The Ulster Unionist Assemblyman said the winter pressures that Emergency Departments are currently facing “were not entirely unexpected”.
“We have an ageing population – the highest user of hospital beds – and rapidly increasing demand which is closely linked to the rising prevalence of long-term conditions right across the population,” Mr Beggs said.
He added: “Acute care systems, whether outpatient or inpatient services, acute medical units, EDs, primary care or the ambulance service, are all under a frightening degree of strain right now.
“After speaking to medical professionals I warned last October that there were firm indications that this year’s strain of winter flu was likely going to be much more virulent than in previous years.
“Unfortunately that has now come to fruition, however I would query whether hospitals in Northern Ireland were placed on high alert as many across the rest of the UK were after the major flu outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand last year.
“Trusts being forced to appeal to staff over social media to come to work would perhaps indicate that not all preparations that could have been taken were taken.”
Mr Beggs added tha the health service “urgently needs stability and longer-term planning”.
He added tha thtere is no one simple answer to resolving the current crisis in Emergency Departments, but there are a number of “contributory factors” which if tackled could ease some of the pressure.
“There is a profound shortage in nursing numbers, so an intensive recruitment campaign needs to be undertaken. That includes further increasing the nurse training places locally, listening to our nurses to help increase retention and encourage those who may have left for family reasons return to the profession,” Mr Beggs said.
He added: “Trolley waits and long stays in Emergency Departments are also massively exacerbated by delayed discharges further up the hospital system.
“Getting people out of hospital sooner frees up beds and is not only medically better for them, but it also makes financial sense - a typical hospital stay costs approximately £400 a day when that patient may only need a domiciliary care package at a fraction of that daily cost.
“Finally, at a time when demand for health care is growing, the number of beds across Northern Ireland has continued to decline significantly.
“In 2005 there were 4.7 beds per 1,000 of population. By two years ago this had dropped to only 3.1. That continuing erosion of hospital beds, combined with rising demand for beds was always going to end up in a totally unsustainable situation.
“Only when these three factors are resolved will we ever be able to fix the major problems in our Emergency Departments.”