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Northern Ireland hospital treating patients in parked ambulances

DUBLIN (Reuters) -Patients were being treated in the back of ambulances in a Northern Ireland hospital car park on Tuesday, a health official said, a day after a warning that COVID-19 was putting healthcare under “unbearable pressures”.

The British-run region has been in and out of some form of lockdown since mid-October when it was one of Europe’s worst COVID-19 hotbeds. The most recent curbs were lifted last week, when all shops, restaurants and pubs serving food reopened.

While those measures slowed the spread of COVID-19, cases have risen in the last week and are at their highest in Mid and East Antrim, near Antrim Area Hospital where Irish broadcaster RTE showed footage of ambulances lined up with their engines on to keep patients warm inside.

“We are providing care in the car park,” Wendy Magowan, medical director of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, which runs hospitals in the area, told BBC Radio Ulster.

“They have varying degrees of ill patients. While I’ve been standing here I can see doctors and nurses going in and out of the back of ambulances. They are providing care and treatment in the back of ambulances.”

Locals requiring urgent care at Antrim Area Hospital and the northerly Causeway Hospital were told earlier on Tuesday not to attend their emergency departments but to instead phone for advice on where to go.

The medical director of Northern Ireland’s Ambulance Service was quoted by the BBC as saying ambulances were queued to some degree outside all of the region’s emergency departments.

The heads of Northern Ireland’s six healthcare trusts warned on Monday of the very real risk of hospitals being overwhelmed in the event of a further COVID-19 spike in January.

Hospital capacity across the province stood at 104% on Tuesday, with non-COVID care restricted.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said he would propose new measures to the devolved government on Thursday.

The power-sharing administration’s two main parties, rivals Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), disagreed sharply on previous COVID-19 curbs, slowing the region’s response. Sinn Fein said on Tuesday that action was needed.

Describing footage outside the hospital as “horrendous”, DUP lawmaker Pam Cameron, the deputy chair of Northern Ireland’s health committee, urged people to exercise personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Reporting by Padraic HalpinEditing by Mark Heinrich and Jonathan Oatis