By James Ward, PA
The winter months could see “the greatest pressures ever experienced by our health service”, the North's Health Minister has warned.
Speaking at the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Belfast, Robin Swann said a likely upsurge in respiratory illnesses such as influenza, combined with the impact of Covid-19, would present a “different” kind of challenge for the health service.
He said hospitals are already seeing a spike in demand, and it is happening much sooner than usual.
Mr Swann said: “I am determined however to do absolutely everything we can to help our health service recover from the intense damage Covid has inflicted on it.
“But the weeks and months ahead will possibly yet again see the greatest pressures ever experienced by our health service.
“Winter has long been a challenging time for our health service, but winter this year will be different as it’ll be combined with ongoing high levels of Covid within the community, the usual colder weather and a likely upsurge in outbreaks of other respiratory viruses such as RSV and influenza.
“These pressures will be keenly felt across our entire hospital, community and social care services.
“And we’re already seeing a much greater than usual spike in demand, and it has been happening sooner.
“As a result parts of our health service have already experienced severe winter-like pressures over the summer months.”
Mr Swann said the situation makes vaccination against Covid-19 more important than ever, and hit out at those peddling “misinformation and lies” which have led to vaccine hesitancy.
“Unfortunately whilst we have seen so many people work so hard on our vaccination effort, there have been a small minority, a tiny minority, that are determined to spread misinformation and lies.
“Whilst I absolutely appreciate there are genuine cases of vaccine hesitancy, and I and my department will continue to have those engagements and provide whatever information or reassurance is necessary, unfortunately there others who choose not to accept the truth and seem set on putting the health and wellbeing of fellow citizens at risk.”
Mr Swann warned that unvaccinated people over the age of 50 are four times more likely to die from Covid.
Those under 50 are 18 times more likely to be admitted to hospital if they are not vaccinated.
The minister also revealed that 1,787 healthcare staff have responded to an appeal to work at new “Covid-light” sites, which will focus on non-Covid care.
The sites, likely to be located at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast, the hospital and primary care complex in Omagh, and Ulster Hospital, will be designated elective surgery hubs “where planned surgery will continue safely and sustainably throughout the coming winter”, he said.
Following a targeted workforce appeal aimed at retired staff and workers who have recently left the health service, 1,787 expressed an interest, while 700 submitted an application.
Mr Swann also took aim at the Northern Ireland Protocol, raising concerns over the impact it could have on the flow of medicines into the region.
“My officials are working around the clock to find practical solutions so that patients are not affected,” he said.
“But let me be clear, no matter what the European Commission may think is acceptable or a pain worth inflicting, as minister I’ll not countenance for a single second patients in Northern Ireland going without the medication they need. It’s just not going to happen.”
The European Commission has promised to deliver “far-reaching proposals” to smooth the operation of the protocol next week, including in the area of medicines.