What happened at Antrim Area Hospital? Why did hospital declare a ‘major incident’ and what it means

Patients were told that the Emergency Department had ‘reached capacity’ and not to attend under ‘any circumstances’

A major incident has been declared at Antrim Area Hospital in Northern Ireland, with the hospital’s Emergency Department closing its doors to patients over the weekend.

The incident happened on Saturday (12 November) evening after the Department could not meet patient demand, with patients and ambulances being redirected to alternative hospitals. In February, the hospital announced a potential major incident was declared which only lasted a few hours.

Sharing the news on Twitter, The Northern Trust which runs the hospital stated: “Antrim Area Hospital Emergency Department has reached full capacity. Please do not attend in any circumstances.” In their latest update, patients are still being told to “not attend the ED unless your condition is urgent or life threatening.”

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since 2 February 2022, after then First Minister Paul Givan resigned over objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

So, why did they declare a major incident and what does this mean for patients? Here’s everything you need to know.

Major incident declared at Antrim Area Hospital. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

What happened at Antrim Area Hospital?

A “major incident” has been declared at Antrim Area Hospital in Northern Ireland. The Northern Trust who manages the hospital took to Twitter on Saturday (12 November) night to tell patients it had reached full capacity and for them not to come to the hospital.

The Trust said: “Antrim Area Hospital Emergency Department has reached full capacity. Please do not attend in any circumstances. Our greatest priority, as always, continues to be patient safety and we are continuously evaluating the situation on an ongoing basis.”

The alert continued into Sunday (13 November), with the hospital remaining under “Extreme Pressure” and patients asked “not attend the ED unless your condition is urgent or life threatening.”

The Trust has also been sharing additional posts on its social media asking for people currently in hospital who feel well enough to be discharged to do so, so that they can free up beds, asking patients to “Please support our hospitals by helping free up beds during this extremely busy time.”

Why did the hospital declare a ‘major incident’?

In a press statement the Northern Trust who manages the hospital explained they had warned about this possible situation for “some time”.

The statement said: “We have warned for some time that it was inevitable that one or more hospitals could be forced into a situation where they had to close their Emergency Department for safety reasons due to the number of people in the department with high numbers needing to be admitted

“On Saturday night, Antrim Area Hospital had a disproportionately high number of critically ill patients, a number of whom arrived in quick succession. A clinical decision was made by the Senior Emergency Department Consultant that the department could no longer operate safely and could not respond appropriately to any further critically ill patients who might have arrived. As such a Major Incident was declared.

“Temporary closure of the ED allowed the situation to be managed and controlled in a safe manner. This was a regrettable position to be in, but in the circumstances it was the only safe and appropriate response. The Trust is continuing to work closely with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and other Trusts to coordinate an appropriate response given regional pressures.”

What does a major incident mean?

When a “major incident” is declared it means a hospital has reached the capacity to care for patients safely.

Speaking to BBC Radio’s Good Morning Ulster programme, Chief Executive of the Northern Trust, Jennifer Welsh explained: “At the time we called the incident there were 131 patients and about 66 had a decision to admit and no bed available.

“It’s not just a numbers game but is the about the acuity of the patients and how sick they are. Our resuscitation unit was over full.

“We simply could not cope. It was safest thing to do to close the door and convey people to next nearest ED [emergency department] to make sure they begin the urgent treatment they need.

“It was the right call to say it was unsafe - it was at the time.”

Welsh added that such an incident would have been “unthinkable” five years ago but is now “normal business - and not acceptable”. Adding: “The situation is pressured and not just in Antrim but across many of Northern Ireland’s emergency departments.”

What does this mean for patients?

Patients were unable to attend the hospital’s emergency department on Saturday evening and have been advised to stay away unless their condition is “life-threatening”. This means that those seeking emergency care are having to travel to other hospitals.

There is already concern growing that this will not be an isolated incident. Reported by BBC NI, there are fears that Belfast’s Royal Hospital, which is Northern Ireland’s largest, is in a similar position and experiencing “serious overcrowding”. The BBC reported there were “alarming levels of patient congestion” and an “unsafe environment for both patients and staff.”

Northern Ireland currently has no devolved government, speaking on Good Morning Ulster, Rita Devlin from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said “I have been contacted by members from three different trusts about overcrowding and unsafe issues for patients and nurses telling me they can’t go on.

“My concern is what is happening across Northern Ireland to stop that happening again? Where are the plans and people who are in charge of the health service - what are they doing to stop this happening again?”

She said that current services need “fundamental transformation,” which was not possible without having “political leadership”.