45 mins away | 

Woman (30s) dies in Newry while waiting for ambulance to come from Belfast

'The whole way down you know the outcome isn’t going to be good, this is someone who is in cardiac arrest and you’re 45 minutes away'

Stock image.

Lisa Smyth

A woman in her 30s has died in Newry after waiting for an ambulance to come from Belfast at the weekend.

Only two crews were working in the Southern division, which covers the likes of Kilkeel, Dungannon and Craigavon, on Saturday night when the patient fell ill.

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has said the planned level of resource to cover the area on Saturday night was 10 crews.

However, only three crews were working at the beginning of the shift and this reduced to two throughout the night as a result of illness.

The two remaining crews were waiting to hand over patients at the emergency department at Craigavon Area Hospital when the patient fell ill in Newry, meaning an ambulance had to be diverted from Belfast, which is 45 minutes away.

One paramedic, speaking generally, said: “Your heart sinks when you’re on in Belfast and you get a call to a category one call in Southern division.

“The whole way down you know the outcome isn’t going to be good, this is someone who is in cardiac arrest or some other time-critical condition and you’re a good 45 minutes away.

“It’s very distressing for everyone and as a caring profession you really do beat yourself up when the patient comes to harm.

“Everyone who was working on Saturday night will be feeling it today, from the paramedics to the staff in the hospital.

“They’ll be wondering if they had worked a bit quicker would that patient have survived, it’s a terrible situation to be in.”

It is understood response officers from the PSNI were tasked to the scene in a bid to administer emergency first aid to the patient while an ambulance travelled from Belfast.

The incident, which was first reported by the BBC, has raised further concern over the safety implications of the temporary pause of emergency general surgery at Daisy Hill Hospital.

In February, the Southern Trust suspended emergency general surgery at the hospital in Newry due to a shortage of surgeons.

Under the new system, a protocol was put in place with NIAS that enables paramedics to bypass the ED at Daisy Hill Hospital and go directly to Craigavon.

For those patients who attend Daisy Hill and who subsequently require emergency surgery, they are transferred to Craigavon Area Hospital for their operation.

At the time, health bosses gave a reassurance there would be adequate ambulance cover to ensure the new system could operate safely.

However, the NIAS paramedic said: “I would ask the bosses where they are getting the crews to transfer patients from Daisy Hill to Craigavon.

“What happened at the weekend is terrible but it’s not surprising given the staffing issues.”

A NIAS spokesperson said: “The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service regrets that, on the evening of Saturday 9 April, levels of ambulance cover fell below those which had been planned and anticipated, with the Southern Division particularly impacted.

“The planned level of resource in Southern Division on Saturday night is 10. Last night only three crews were available at the commencement of the shift and this was further depleted by one due to onset of illness.

“As NIAS manages the service on a regional basis with the closest available ambulance responding to the next most clinically urgent call, crews from other divisions will have responded to calls in the Southern division.

“NIAS also had three A&E support crews and one Independent ambulance crew available to complement the emergency crews. A&E support and independent crews are despatched to lower acuity calls to protect the A&E resource for the most serious and urgent waiting calls.

“NIAS would like to apologise to patients and their careers for any delays experienced as a result of reduced cover on Saturday night.”

Last month, it was revealed paramedics in Northern Ireland were delayed getting to the most critically ill patients 5,628 times last year.

Category one calls are those considered to be immediately life-threatening, such as cardiac arrest, drowning, or major blood loss, and the target time to attend is eight minutes.

However, figures released by NIAS revealed the potentially life-saving target was missed in more than half of category one calls last year.

The longest wait endured by a category one patient in 2021 was one hour and nine minutes.

The figures were released in a response to a Freedom of Information request.

At the time, NIAS said it was not possible to say how many patients who endured a delayed response died before an ambulance reached them.

However, last week bosses from the ambulance trust said delays could have been a contributing factor in the deaths of 14 people in Northern Ireland in the past year.

While NIAS chief executive Michael Bloomfield said it was “impossible” to make a direct link with the deaths, he said the delays may have placed the patients at increased risk.

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