That’s the message from health service medical leaders amidst increasing concerns about the impact of the Omicron variant. Those concerns relate to the impact on “an already over-stretched workforce of absences due to infection and self-isolation”.
Studies from around the world suggest that Omicron is milder than the Delta variant, with a 30% to 70% lower chance of people infected ending up in hospital. However health chiefs say they are concerned at the speed at which Omicron is spreading, which could lead to a large number of people being sick at the same time, including staff in the health service.
Speaking on behalf of Medical Directors across the region, Dr Seamus O’Reilly said: “We know how infectious this particular variant is and we know that case numbers are already high. Alongside the public health threat, we are also extremely concerned about the number of health and social care staff who might not be available to work due to COVID-19 infection or self-isolation at the very time when we will need them most. This could be the factor that causes most pressure on all services over the coming weeks, not just in hospitals but also much-needed community services and support and administrative services.
“There is also the possibility that we will see increasing numbers of patients being admitted to hospitals as a result of Omicron. This would be on top of the significant pressures we have already seen on our health and social care system.
“It is vitally important that people only come to hospitals if their condition dictates that they need to be there. Emergency Departments are there to deal with genuine life-threatening emergencies for example chest pain, breathing difficulties, loss of consciousness, stroke or sudden confusion.
“In any situation where resources are likely to be as depleted as we anticipate, it is vital that we are able to prioritise those who are most in need of our attention and that they receive timely and appropriate treatment and care. So please use alternatives where possible.”
Dr O’Reilly stressed that the HSC system in Northern Ireland was very much working as one and that was the right thing to be doing.
“It is a situation where we must work together not only to make best use of all the resources that are available to us but also to utilise capacity wherever that happens to be. In practice, that will mean for those who come to hospital by ambulance, they may not necessarily be taken to their local hospital. Ambulance response times will also be longer and people may have to consider making their own way to hospital if they are able to do so.”
Stressing that pressures in staffing would not be confined to acute hospitals, Dr O’Reilly said that health and social care staff working in the community would also likely be affected.
“The problems in securing adequate domiciliary care provision both in the independent sector and Trusts have been well rehearsed over the past few months. Those problems won’t go away overnight and staff testing positive and having to self-isolate will continue to complicate the picture.
“I would also stress to patients and their relatives that hospitals are not the safest places to stay once the period of required acute care is at an end. I do appreciate that many patient discharges are not straightforward but remaining in a hospital runs the very real risk of new complications occurring such as infections which, at the very least, will only make the situation worse.
“I’m asking patients and families to play their part and cooperate with us in accepting temporary placements in care homes when these are offered. In some cases, families may be able to provide temporary support at home.
“Overall, we hope the public will understand that the health and social care system is unlikely to be able to maintain some services due to inevitable staff shortages in the coming weeks. In that event we would appeal for their help and patience as staff do their best in what could be very difficult circumstances.”
Emphasising that every action has a consequence, Dr O’Reilly said that the best things that people can do now are to get their vaccination or their booster jab, limit their contacts over Christmas and take lateral flow tests before meeting friends, family and loved ones.
The statement was released in the names of Mr Chris Hagan, Medical Director, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Dr Seamus O’Reilly, Medical Director, Northern Health and Social Care Trust, Dr Charlie Martyn, Medical Director, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, Dr Maria O’Kane, Medical Director, Southern Health and Social Care Trust, Dr Catherine McDonnell, Medical Director, Western Health and Social Care Trust, and Dr Nigel Ruddell, Medical Director, Northern Ireland Ambulance Service.