The Royal College of Nursing said it gave advance warning of the exceptional crisis on A&E departments over the holiday period two weeks ago.
From Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day almost 1,000 people had to wait longer than 12 hours to be treated in Northern Ireland A&E departments, with the number of patients 4% higher than last year.
Antrim Area Hospital brought in 10 St John Ambulance volunteers to support nurses on New Year’s Eve, while the South Eastern Health Trust put out social media appeals for off-duty staff to come in to ease pressures.
The BBC reported that some health trusts are advising staff not to book non-emergency operations due to a shortage of hospital beds.
The Health and Social Care Board responded that planned operations take into account expected pressures but that at times it may be “unavoidable to postpone elective operations due to the level of unscheduled care pressures”.
Janice Adams, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, told the News Letter: “We have had contact with every A&E department across Northern Ireland and we know that there is pressure on a daily basis.”
Her members reported that one A&E department had 176 patients on trolleys for 12 hours on Thursday and Friday last week. Another saw 114 patients waiting for beds with 30 waiting for more than 12 hours. One trust had 120 nursing shifts not filled over the holiday period, she added.
There are currently 1,500 vacancies for nurses in Northern Ireland – a shortfall of 10% of the required staff, she said.
An extra 300 training places have been created but 600 Northern Ireland nurses left the profession last year.
A major difference this year is that the majority of A&E patients are “very sick” and so-called inappropriate attenders make up only 5-6% of patients.
Nurses and their managers and directors and trying their very best, said Ms Adams.
“Our members feel let down by the leadership in the system and by the lack of political leadership in the country.
“We knew this was going to happen. It is extremely predictable. Warnings were given. Everybody knew that this was going to be like two weeks ago.”
She recommends that more care needs to be given in the community and that as much non-nursing administrative work be taken off nurses.
Sean McGovern, vice president Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said a shortfall in A&E doctors is being filled with locum staff.
“This year there has been a critical spike in respiratory ailments,” he said. “Year-on-year demands are increasing 3-5% because patients are living longer with complex conditions and GP out of hours services were overwhelmed.”
UUP health spokesman Roy Beggs queried whether Northern Ireland hospitals were as prepared for winter as those in the rest of the UK.
“After speaking to medical professionals I warned last October that there were firm indications that this year’s strain of winter flu was likely going to be much more virulent than in previous years,” he said. “Unfortunately that has now come to fruition, however I would query whether hospitals in Northern Ireland were placed on high alert as many across the rest of the UK were.”
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said the situation at Craigavon Area Hospital was “worrying”.
She said: “Pressures had already seen patients have elective surgery cancelled and patients have complained of increased waiting times.”
Waiting times on Wednesday morning at the hospital were over eight hours.