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The DUP’s representatives on the Health Committee Pam Cameron and Jonathan Buckley have used a special session with the Health Minister and Chief Medical Officer to press for practical solutions to waning levels of staff and available beds in our health service during the pandemic.

South Antrim MLA and Vice-Chair of the Committee, Pam Cameron, said:

‘‘The HSC Workforce Appeal was relaunched to boost staff levels in the health service by the end of November only 6% of applicants had been appointed. At a time when staffing levels are regularly cited as the main barrier to greater capacity in our hospitals this needs serious scrutiny.

While I welcome the fact that appointments have since increased, this is still not at the level required to make a tangible and lasting difference. We have to query whether HSC recruitment structures have been flexible enough to match the skillsets of those coming forward with the many unfilled roles.

Covid-19 is a threat around the clock. We need all hands-on deck, not least to support and extend our team of contact tracers. It is vital that the Department urgently identifies solutions to this poor attrition rate and looks to external expertise where it can bring benefits.

Separately, I am pleased that updated shielding advice for those deemed clinically extremely vulnerable will be published on the Department of Health website later today covering the Christmas period and emergence of the new variant of the virus. Ultimately the actions we all take in keeping our distance and practicing good respiratory hygiene can slow the spread of the virus. However, it is right that we elevate the needs of the most vulnerable and give them the guidance and support they desperately need at this uncertain time.’’

Upper Bann DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley added:

‘‘It is extremely worrying that the number of available beds across Trusts reported in the daily Covid dashboard is now around half the total inpatient and day case beds available on average during 2019/2020.

The Minister has consistently highlighted a scarcity of staff as the main driver for the dwindling number of beds, with more staff abstracted from their usual roles to deliver vital Covid care. However, we must ask why the Department did not have a meaningful medium-term strategy for securing the skills needed to retain greater levels of routine service. This is particularly telling when we consider that at the onset of the crisis the focus of officials was actually on floor space and physical equipment such as ventilators - which now can’t be utilised to the full because of staffing pressures.

It is vital that missed opportunities to plan and prepare for an enhanced pandemic workforce are not compounded by barriers to the appointment of those who have volunteered their skills as part of the HSC Appeal. I would encourage the Minister to review the current structures to ensure that nobody who can add value to the current public health response is needlessly turned away.’’