A union has said using volunteers to help patients amid the crisis facing Northern Ireland’s health service is an unprecedented move – and “highly dangerous”.
St John Ambulance workers were invited to Antrim Area Hospital on New Year’s Eve to help with patients waiting for emergency treatment.
The role was said to be largely limited to sitting with patients, making tea and keeping them company during their wait.
The volunteers also had to be accompanied by registered nurses.
It is an unprecedented step and it is another sign our health and social care system is in crisis. We don't have enough nursing staff.
But Janice Smyth, NI director of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This is heading only in one direction and in the absence of a workforce plan this is highly dangerous.
“Once broken, it is not easily fixed.”
She added that there are 1,500 nursing vacancies waiting to be filled and that there was not enough staff to support the number of beds – let alone those waiting on trolleys during peak times.
Ms Smyth said Antrim Hospital's director of nursing was left with an extremely difficult decision before calling on St John Ambulance.
“It was the least worst decision,” she said.
St John Ambulance said its people were well-trained and that such work was what it existed for.
A spokeswoman said its volunteers’ actions on New Year’s Eve were “nothing spectacular” and it was made clear across the UK that they attended emergency units to give support.
According to health officials, a total of 15,626 patients were treated at Northern Ireland’s main Emergency Departments between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
That represents an increase of 4% on last year and 14% on 2015/16.
A total of 928 had to wait longer than 12 hours to be seen, treated, and either discharged or admitted to hospital.
A spokesperson for the Health and Social Care Board said: “Plans have been put in place across the Health and Social Care system to manage increased pressures at this time of year.
“However, as a result of increased demand on top of an already very busy system, the level of complex and serious conditions,particularly amongst the growing frail and elderly population, the prevalence of flu and other respiratory conditions at this time of year, and the challenges of helping patients to return home after a hospital stay, some patients have had to wait more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital.
“We fully understand the upset and inconvenience this causes to patients and their families and apologise to them for it.”
The spokesperson added: “We can assure the public that anyone who needs to use an Emergency Department for urgent or life threatening conditions will continue to receive access to safe, high quality services from our highly skilled and committed staff.”