Northern Ireland hospitals 'beyond capacity' as ambulances left queuing for 11 hours

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service lost a record 34% of its operational capacity last month while patients waited outside hospitals.

Last week, two hospitals in Northern Ireland said they were operating "beyond capacity" and another was so full, it declared a major incident.

A 77-year-old woman died while waiting on a trolley for several hours in an emergency department (ED).

Forty crews were treating patients outside EDs as Sky News joined a night shift at ambulance headquarters in Belfast.

It is not what Laura Reynolds expected to be doing when she qualified as a paramedic two years ago.

"We spend a lot of our time frustratingly waiting at emergency departments," she said.

"You hear calls on the channel for category one calls that need covered and we need crews and we've maybe sat at an ED for 10 hours, 11 hours for some of our shifts."

John Walsh has been a paramedic for 19 years and used to treat 10 patients in a 12-hour shift.

Last Monday, he was able to treat only two in a shift that lasted 15 hours.

He said: "The first patient we had on the stretcher for over six hours waiting outside a hospital... and the second patient we had for four hours before getting relieved by another crew so that we could actually get home.

"Up until the start of COVID, I never had to look after a patient in an ambulance. I would take the patient straight into the hospital."

We were interviewing the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service when a 999 call to the control room vividly illustrated the dilemma.

"Keep yourself as safe as you can. Can you see anybody? Can you hear anybody screaming?" an emergency dispatcher asked the caller.

It was a reported road traffic accident - someone feared trapped in a burning vehicle, and they needed an ambulance immediately.

I asked chief executive Michael Bloomfield if the lack of capacity in hospitals was hampering their ability to respond to life-threatening situations.

"It absolutely increases the risk to life and to serious harm," he said.

"Those 13,500 hours that we are unable to respond to other calls waiting, while we're waiting with patients outside an ED, there are many people during that time who are very ill who need an ambulance."

With no functioning government or health minister at Stormont, there is no one to lead attempts to address the crisis.

Those on the frontline - paramedics working around the clock to save lives - are bearing the brunt of that political failure.