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Exhausted staff continue to face intense pressures as nearly 1 in 7 patients wait for 12-hours or more in Northern Ireland

10 February 2021

Data published today by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland show that over 5,000 patients spent 12 hours or more in major Emergency Departments in December 2020 – equal to nearly 1 in 7 attendances.

In December 2020, a total of 5,150 patients spent 12 hours or more in Emergency Departments, this represents 11% of all attendances. The number of 12-hour waits has increased by 105% since July 2020 and by 24% on November 2020. In Q3 2020 a total of 14,162 patients were waiting 12 hours or more before being admitted, transferred, or discharged; this is a 35% increase on the previous quarter (Q2 2020).

In Quarter 3 2020 total attendances decreased by one fifth, equal to nearly 40,000 patients from the previous quarter. Total attendances in December 2020 are down by 43% on the previous year and total attendances for Q3 2020 are down by one third (67,000 attendances) from the same quarter last year (Q3 2019).

In Q3, on average 57.1% of patients attending Type 1 (major) Emergency Departments were seen, treated, and discharged or admitted to hospital within four hours of arrival; this is a decrease of 3.7 percentage points compared to Q2 2020. December 2020 saw the worst four-hour performance of 2020 with almost half of all patients waiting more than four-hours to be seen, treated, and discharged or admitted to hospital.

Dr Paul Kerr, Vice President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine in Northern Ireland, said:

“The data show the enormous strain the health service has been under since October. Hospitals and staff have faced intense pressures, and in addition to the expected winter pressures, have had to change how they work in response to the COVID situation.

“Patients are waiting longer to receive care; ambulances are struggling to offload patients into Emergency Departments, and it is increasingly difficult to move patients through the system – there simply are not enough beds to move patients to.

“Throughout the pandemic staff have remained resilient, working tirelessly but after nearly a year, they are exhausted, mentally and physically, and there is no doubt that the pandemic will have taken its toll on our frontline staff and health workers.

“The health care service has been severely tested; we faced the pandemic short of staff, beds and resources, but continue to meet the challenges facing us.

“But we are concerned about the problems ahead as we face a difficult process of further change while balancing uncertainty with the need to return services to normal.

“If the pandemic exit strategy is not carefully planned, great challenges may lie ahead as the service tries to recommence elective operations but maintaining access to beds for emergency admissions must be a priority.

“We must see an exit strategy from the pandemic and a plan for the future. This must include provisions for adequate psychological support for current staff who are exhausted and are nearing burnout, physically and mentally.”

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