Military staff will support services at NI hospital

Military staff will support work at Northern Ireland’s regional Nightingale facility, a health trust chief has said.

Health Minister Robin Swann announced yesterday that more than 100 medically-trained military personnel will be deployed in Northern Ireland.

It comes as hospitals struggle to deal with a surge of coronavirus patients.

There were 832 people with Covid-19 in hospital yesterday, 67 of whom were in intensive care units.

While the use of the military has sparked rows in the Stormont Executive in the past, Sinn Fein said it would not rule out any measures that can help save lives.

Dr Cathy Jack, chief executive of the Belfast Health Trust, told a Stormont committee the military staff will work under trust management.

“Throughout this pandemic, retirees, students and volunteers have all come in to help us and we have welcomed them,” she said.

“This is another group of highly trained individuals that will support my staff to support the patients and deliver the care they need and I welcome this.

“They are band four equivalent staff, they are medically trained technicians able to take blood, and they will be working under our normal management structures.

“For me in Belfast, they will be focusing on helping to support the regional Nightingale.”

Dr Jack said Belfast Trust continues to operate under significant pressure.

She said staff absence is over 12% with many having to self isolate after being contacted by the track and trace team.

Dr Jack said there were 210 Covid-19 positive inpatients within 14 days, and an additional 50 which have remained in hospital beyond 14 days due to more complex needs.

“I have 30 Covid positive patients in ICU,” she said. “I have a very small number of children who have been admitted with illnesses who also have Covid in the children’s hospital.”

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Also appearing at Stormont’s health committee, Shane Devlin, chief executive of the Southern Health Trust, said the number of hospital inpatients in this third surge of the pandemic was even higher than they had expected.

He pointed out that in his area, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, Mid Ulster, Newry and Mourne and Down districts, had the highest infection rates in Northern Ireland.

“Some of our postcodes were up to nearly 1,500 positive cases per 100,000 which resulted in having an enormous growth,” he said.

Mr Devlin said at the height of the first surge of the pandemic they had 63 inpatients with Covid-19.

Last week they had 272 inpatients.

He said that number has been reduced to just over 200 thanks to support from other trusts.

“We’re managing a huge number of inpatients, way far over and above anything we’d ever imagined we’d do, and that has resulted in our beds being exceptionally busy and our ICU being close to full, we have 14 out of 16 today,” Mr Devlin added.

“We too are having considerable staff absence, today we have 759 staff not at work because of Covid, either Covid positive or self isolating.”

Jennifer Welsh, chief executive of the Northern Health Trust, said there was a second surge of the virus in October and November, before a third surge in recent weeks.

“We went into a third surge already at a very high level of activity right across the health and social care system,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Stormont Executive is set to meet later today to discuss the current lockdown restrictions.

Mr Swann said he will be bringing a paper for ministers to consider in relation to the measures.

While he did not reveal his recommendations, he said that this is “not the time to open any floodgates”.