RCN raises workforce concerns in Northern Ireland after volunteers supported patients on New Year's Eve

St John Ambulance volunteers were 'supporting patients, making tea and keeping them company'

The RCN has raised concerns about an ‘unprecedented’ move by a hospital in Northern Ireland to allow trained volunteers to sit with patients awaiting emergency treatment.

Picture: Alamy

Antrim Area Hospital invited the St John Ambulance volunteers, who worked under the direction of registered nurses, to alleviate pressure on staff due to a high patient attendance rate on New Year’s Eve.

RCN Northern Ireland director Janice Smyth said: ‘This is heading only in one direction and, in the absence of a workforce plan, this is highly dangerous.

‘It is an unprecedented step and is another sign that our health and social care system is in crisis. We don't have enough nursing staff.’

She added that there were 1,500 nursing vacancies waiting to be filled in Northern Ireland.

Well-trained volunteers work ‘across the UK’

A St John Ambulance spokesperson said the volunteers are well trained and that their actions on New Year’s Eve were ‘nothing spectacular’.

She added that volunteers from the charity attended emergency units across the UK to give support where needed: ‘The help is limited; it is about supporting patients, making tea and keeping them company.’

The Northern Health and Social Care Trust, which runs health services in Antrim, said the hospital was under severe pressure due to a high number of attendances of very sick and vulnerable people.

A trust spokesperson said: ‘We made appeals for our own staff to come into work if they were not on shift but were available, and also used the services of bank and agency nursing staff.

‘As will be appreciated, resources were extremely stretched over the holiday period.

‘We have an active programme of volunteering at our hospitals, and, during the New Year period, St John Ambulance volunteers worked at Antrim Area Hospital.

‘This complemented our normal service and assisted in supporting patient comfort and safety.’

The trust said the use of volunteers was complementary to core staff but that they did not substitute registered nurses.

Large increase in number of attendances

A Health and Social Care Board spokesperson said that from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day, 15,626 patients were treated at Northern Ireland’s main emergency departments.

This represented an increase of 4% compared with the same period the year before, and a 14% increase compared with 2015-16.

A total of 928 people had to wait longer than 12 hours to be seen, treated and either discharged or admitted to hospital.

A board spokesperson apologised for long waiting times and 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.’

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