A patient dies in a chair awaiting treatment. Other patients wait all night in ambulances. Hospitals are so understaffed they tell the public to stay away. One hospital suspends emergency general surgery.
Another week, another slew of headlines about Northern Ireland’s healthcare crisis, by some measures the worst in the UK.
And the drumbeat of bad news is expected to continue this weekend when family doctors vote on radical proposals – such as levying fees to visit GPs – to try to save an overstretched system from collapse. Several GP surgeries have closed, with more closures expected.
The region’s shambolic healthcare became so parlous that it eclipsed other concerns such as the cost of living, Stormont’s political stalemate and the Northern Ireland protocol.
A decade of underfunding and policy dysfunction paved the way for a crisis that on Friday left politicians and healthcare providers trading blame.
The latest flashpoint was the South West acute hospital in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, which suspended unplanned emergency surgery after a consultant surgeon resigned.
Geraldine McKay, the director of acute services at the Western trust, said it had not been able to hire enough consultants. “The trust is therefore now unable to maintain the required workforce to sustain and deliver a safe emergency general surgical service,” she said.
Local politicians and community activists condemned the announcement. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the town hall, some holding placards. “The trust don’t understand what it’s like to have a rural hospital, travel is not acceptable,” one protester, Dermot Browne, told the BBC.
However, Barry McAree, a consultant colorectal and general surgeon, welcomed the announcement as overdue. “I believe that this should have happened a long time ago, as do many others,” he said.
McAree said the Bengoa review – a 2016 report about the region’s health service – had recommended consolidating services, which meant shutting and restricting some departments. “The fact is that surgeons and patients are better looked after in bigger units with longer travel times even taken into the mix.” He accused politicians of “parish pump” politics.
All major parties have accepted the need to restructure healthcare but balked at unpopular measures, leaving resources scattered piecemeal across the region. The collapse of devolved government has compounded the policy paralysis.
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s putative first minister, called for the Stormont executive to be restored after meeting nurses. “They feel exhausted and demoralised. They are crying out for support and for help, just to do their jobs,” she said.
Waiting lists have been building since 2013. Nearly a fifth of Northern Ireland’s population are waiting for a first appointment, and more than half of those have been waiting for more than a year.
Groups representing people with cancer, multiple sclerosis and other conditions say the delays are having devastating consequences. The number of people waiting more than a month to start cancer treatment has quintupled over the past decade.
An elderly patient died on 11 November while awaiting treatment at Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital, which was under extreme pressure at the time with more than 60 patients awaiting admission.
Patients’ relatives have complained about long waits at other hospitals. One elderly woman with a fractured kneecap waited eight hours outside Antrim area hospital.
Last month, a court jailed a former patient for assault at the same hospital. Paul Parks, 59, told a nurse who was treating him to “fuck off or I’ll show you what I can do”, before stubbing out a cigarette on her hand.