By Sharon Gallagher, Chief Executive
Last month I joined other Health and Social Care leaders across Northern Ireland in appealing for the public to support our efforts to keep our services running this winter.
The very real threat to our services has been highlighted in a statement by the six Trust Chief Executives (and brought home graphically last Sunday January 10th) with the Western and Southern Trusts both appealing for staff to urgently come in to work to provide support.
The situation is very serious indeed. Hospitals are grappling with record numbers of Covid-19 patients and modelling predicts that numbers could double by the third week of this month.
Regrettably, a number of Trusts have been forced to stand down all but the most urgent elective surgery, including some red-flag cancer surgery, to redeploy staff to meet the urgent needs of extremely ill patients, especially both COVID and non-COVID patients needing intensive care. These postponed operations will be rescheduled as soon as possible.
A regional approach has been agreed to ensure that any available theatre capacity across Northern Ireland is allocated for those patients most in need of surgery, both during this current surge of the pandemic and as we come out of it. This may mean that patients may need to travel further for their surgery. Cancer services are seeking to maintain chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other non-surgical treatments and alternative treatments will be provided in the absence of surgical options.
You will be aware from all of the reporting across many media outlets our Emergency Departments (EDs) are severely stretched. No-one should be attending an ED at any time unless they need emergency care that is life threatening. You should consider other services including; Urgent Care Centres (which are now running in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and the Downe Hospital), Minor Injuries Units, GP Out of Hours, or your own GP. Pharmacists now also have additional services in place and can also offer advice and treatment for common conditions and refer patients to other healthcare professionals as appropriate.
Pressure in one part of our health and social care system inevitably impacts on the other parts, so patients also need to leave hospital as soon as they are medically fit to do so. That might mean accepting a placement where it is available and it might also mean families having to go the extra mile to provide temporary support for relatives. Our hospitals need every bed they can get for some very ill patients at this challenging time.
The COVID-19 vaccines provide long-term hope and there has been rapid progress in this area. The Department of Health has now published the phased plan for the vaccination which will provide some guidance on the timeline of the roll out.
Please be patient and remember that a first vaccination will not mean an immediate end to lockdown restrictions. The public must play their part too to help us by staying at home, practising social distancing as well as good hand hygiene and wearing face coverings.