BMA warns medical staff facing pressures 'never seen before'

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Doctors say this week will bring the biggest surge in Covid-19 patient numbers yet seen in Northern Ireland's hospitals.

The British Medical Association says medical staff will face pressures unlike anything they've ever seen before, and that the strain is affecting doctors and nurses' physical and mental wellbeing.

There were 823 people with Covid-19 in hospitals here on Monday, according to the Department of Health. 65 of those patients were being treated in intensive care.

The head of the BMA in Northern Ireland Dr Tom Black says healthcare workers here are deeply worried about the coming weeks.

"We have already seen the health service come under pressure recently with calls for additional staff to voluntarily come into work, but is likely that over the next few weeks doctors will be asked to work in a new location or provide support to areas that are very overstretched.

"Many have already had planned annual leave cancelled.

"Speaking to members I know they will as always do their best for patients, but many of them have told me that they are already exhausted and deeply demoralised."

Dr Tom Black, the chair of the Northern Ireland council of the BMA Credit: UTV

In a recent survey of BMA members in Northern Ireland 47% of them said they were coping but were unlikely to be able to continue indefinitely, 46% said they were not able to give care to the standard they would want and 65% anticipated that their workload would increase significantly in this second wave. Dr Black added: "The pressure we are under at the minute is widespread and we are likely to see whole system issues over the next few weeks where it is not just one doctor or nurse struggling but the whole team who will be jointly facing challenges and trying to overcome obstacles.

"Health care workers will do their best in a very difficult situation, where many decisions in this pandemic were made too late. I have no doubt that when we come to review the way we have handled the pandemic this phase will stand out as one where we could have planned better."

The BMA reissued information to members on Monday about ethical decision making, in the event that doctors are having to consider prioritising patients for treatment.

"This is not something that any doctor would want to actually do, but we need to make sure they have tools and information to help them make those decisions.

"We have also co-signed a letter to the Health Minister asking for emergency legislation to be put in place that will protect doctors and nurses from "inappropriate" legal action when dealing with circumstances outside their control. "There is no doubt the news about the vaccines and the rate at which they are being given out here is good news but I would strongly caution against people seeing this as a silver bullet.

"People need to get a second dose before they have optimal immunity and COVID-19 is still highly prevalent in the community. There seems to be a sense in some quarters that 'it's all over' but that is very much not the case."