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Health Minister Robin Swann has urged the public to support health and social care staff as they continue to work through unprecedented pressures.

The Minister said hospital Emergency Departments remain under severe strain, reflecting pressures right across the Health and Social Care system.

He said the system as a whole is struggling to cope with current levels of demand for care – and also expressed concern at reports of aggressive and abusive behaviour towards staff.

Mr Swann pointed out that the health service has been through the most difficult period in its history and remains under extreme stress.

The public can help by using services appropriately and doing all they can to stay well over the summer. A summer “Stay Well” campaign has been launched to highlight actions we can all take. Getting vaccinated and doing all we can to stop Covid spreading will provide vital support.

The Health Minister said: “The current level of pressure is at least on a par with what is normally experienced in winter. There are a number of interlinked factors behind this situation.

“Our health and social care system was fragile before the pandemic and the last 18 months have inflicted untold damage.

“The truth is that the system as a whole is struggling to cope with current levels of demand for care. This is severely impacting Emergency Departments, GP services, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and other areas.

“It is leading in many cases to long and distressing waiting times for patients. That is a deeply regrettable state of affairs. I would appeal to the public to support and work with staff as they deal with this unprecedented and deeply frustrating situation.

“I am deeply concerned at reports of aggressive and abusive behaviour towards some staff.

“Staff understand the frustrations of the public. Indeed, they share them. So do I. Staff have not created the current situation, nor can they flick a switch and fix them. Despite the trauma and exhaustion caused by Covid, staff are working relentlessly to treat the sickest people quickest. Please respect them and help them do their jobs in these extremely difficult conditions.”

The Minister added: “Some of the causes of the current situation in our health service have been building up for years. I am determined to address these. In recent weeks, I have published roadmaps for tackling our waiting list crisis and rebuilding cancer services, and a 10-year Mental Health Strategy. I continue to make the case for sustained and substantial investment in health and I believe this has strong support around the Executive table.”

Factors behind the current health and social care pressures include:

  • limits on capacity due to COVID-19 infection prevention measures, including restricted space in hospitals and reductions in already stretched bed capacity;
  • ongoing Covid-related care for patients, plus the significant workload delivering the NI vaccination programme;
  • people coming forward for medical care for conditions that developed during lockdown;
  • people presenting with mental health conditions that developed during lockdown;
  • people who are on waiting lists seeking GP or hospital care for conditions that have deteriorated;
  • limits on capacity in intermediate/social/domiciliary care, impacting on hospital discharges;

The Health and Social Care (HSC) system together with GPs, pharmacists and dentists are working to ensure that the Northern Ireland public can access important health and care services this summer.

The summer ‘Stay Well’ campaign will encourage the public to choose services appropriately to help ease current challenges.

As part of the campaign, people are being encouraged to look after themselves and others. This includes simple steps like ordering repeat prescriptions well in advance of any public holidays. This can help reduce pressures on GP and GP out of hours services.

If you feel unwell, there are a range of healthcare services available to help you.  These range from self-care/pharmacy for minor ailments; GP services; Minor Injury Units and Emergency Services. Self-care is the best choice to treat minor illnesses, ailments and injuries. A range of common illnesses such as sunburn, hay-fever, aches and pains, coughs, colds, upset stomachs and sore throats can be treated with over the counter medicines and plenty of rest.  Remember, whether treated or not, most of these will get better.

To be clear, if your case is an emergency, then you should go to a hospital Emergency Department without delay.

COVID-19 continues to bring significant pressures to Northern Ireland’s health and social care system. That’s why we must continue to do all we can to stop the virus spreading. By getting fully vaccinated, with both doses of your vaccine, you will be playing an important part in supporting our health service. Continuing to follow public health advice on preventing Covid infection is also vital.

Anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms should book a PCR Covid test immediately. PCRs – the most accurate tests – are available at testing sites across Northern Ireland and can be booked at: https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test(external link opens in a new window / tab).

If your PCR test is positive, you need to self-isolate and provide all the information and assistance you can to the Contact Tracing Service. That helps trace possible contacts and contains virus spread.

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