Emergency Departments: Pressures

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 15th March 2022.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 2:30 pm, 15th March 2022

T2. Mr Blair asked the Minister of Health to outline the immediate action that he is taking to address the pressures being experienced by emergency departments in Northern Ireland, particularly because, last month, a potential major incident was declared at Antrim Area Hospital in his South Antrim constituency. (AQT 2152/17-22)

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for his question. As he says, the hospital is in his constituency, but it borders mine and is a few miles from my home, so I am fully aware of the pressures and work undertaken there.

A trust or management team does not declare a potential incident lightly. Some members of staff referred to it as a flare-up, prompting the hospital to call and seek assistance. We have had a number of initiatives, especially over the past 18 months to two years, on how emergency departments work together through ambulance "smoothing". That is where ambulances are redirected to emergency departments, should there be spare and available capacity. However, there is not a lot of that in our emergency departments at the minute.

A major review of emergency medicine is due to be published shortly. There is no quick fix to this. No matter who you speak to across the medical professions, they will tell you that. It is about long-term development and investment, not just in our workforce but in our facilities, so that we can get on top of 10 years of underinvestment in facilities and workforce.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am grateful for the reviews that are being undertaken and the initiatives that are under way at the behest of trusts. Are all aspects of the pressures on emergency departments being addressed? The issue of access to GPs has been mentioned a number of times today. Is the impact of that on emergency departments being actively considered by the Minister and the Department?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member. He made reference to the specific point that was raised earlier about GPs and the work that they continue to do. A number of times in the House, I have addressed the misconception, or misperception in some cases, that our GP services are closed. The Member knows that they are not, but it is a narrative that is out there and that is hard to address. I would like to make sure that people are aware that there is access to GP services as necessary.

Recent figures on access to GP services indicate that, currently, practice teams carry out approximately 200,000 consultations weekly. Feedback from our GPs indicates that many patients, particularly those with chronic disease, are presenting with more complex needs, which is making it more difficult for GPs to see all the people who they would wish to.

It is not about one part of the health service putting pressure on another; it is all under pressure. There is no spare capacity in our service that we can readily divert to help elsewhere. Especially over the last two years, we have all seen the health service come together and work as one, delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. It is challenging. The people who work in the health service know the pressures that they are under, but I have never seen a workforce, although tired and under pressure, that is more resilient, especially as we come out of this wave of COVID-19. The members of that workforce are keen to redress the situation and get back to the work that they want to do.