Northern Ireland hospitals at capacity as ambulance service warns of delays

The ambulance service is braced for delays and hospitals have reached full capacity in Northern Ireland.

Overall bed occupancy is at 100%, with only six beds still empty, latest official figures show.

Paramedic chiefs have warned that Covid-19 staff sickness absences could delay answers to 999 calls at one of the busiest times of year.

Around 160 employees were off work for pandemic-related reasons.

Response times for less urgent cases were expected to be increased and emergency callers could wait longer on the line.

Meanwhile, schools will deliver remote learning in the first week of the new term after a return to classrooms was delayed due to spiralling Covid-19 infection rates.

A Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) statement said: “Unfortunately, the NIAS Emergency Ambulance Control Room is currently experiencing absences due to Covid-19, and contingency planning to mitigate the potential risk to service disruption is ongoing.

“This has put our service under even more pressure and we anticipate that callers to 999 may, at times, experience a delay in having their calls answered.”

A further 11 people have died with Covid-19, Stormont’s Department of Health said.

Another 1,929 individuals had tested positive.

Hospital bed occupancy was running to 467, with 34 in an intensive care unit and 27 on a ventilator.

A total of 107 care home Covid outbreaks were being addressed.

Education Minister Peter Weir said the delay in reopening schools would affect both primary and secondary settings.

For secondary school Years 8 to 11, remote learning would continue throughout January.

Schools would open next week to accommodate vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Childcare settings, including those attached to schools, pre-school facilities, nurseries and special schools, would also open as usual next week.

Mr Weir had been facing mounting pressure to delay the return to school after the Christmas holidays due to worsening infection rates.

The minister said exams due in January would take place compliant with public health advice.

He said schools would have flexibility to deliver face-to-face learning for pupils due to sit those exams if they wished.

“I must stress that these decisions are not made lightly as I know the negative impact on children’s learning and mental health and wellbeing of not being in school,” he said.

“However, particularly after unprecedented levels of positive Covid-19 tests since Christmas, and the pressure this applies to our health service, it is critical that we all must consider the public health and scientific advice as we look forward to brighter days ahead.”

The rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in Northern Ireland will begin at GP practices on Monday.

An initial batch of 50,000 doses has been allocated.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said as many people on the priority list as possible should be offered a first dose of the vaccine (Liam McBurney/PA)

Those aged over 80 will be initially prioritised.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said as many people on the priority list as possible should be offered a first dose.

He added: “The evidence shows that the initial dose of vaccine offers as much as 70% protection against the effects of the virus.

“Providing that level of protection on a large scale will have the greatest impact on reducing mortality and hospitalisations, protecting the health and social care system. It is the right thing to do for the public health.”

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