HEALTH chiefs in the North-East have suspended non-urgent planned operations and patient transport services to hospitals and clinics.

The news comes as the region’s NHS steps up plans to cope with increases in patients requiring hospital admission and respiratory support due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Non-urgent patient transport services to hospital appointments and clinics will be suspended by the North East Ambulance Service from 8am on Tuesday, March 24 until further notice.

This allows the service to support hospitals to discharge more patients well enough to return home and free up the maximum possible inpatient and critical care capacity in the region.

A limited transport service will continue for patients needing dialysis; chemotherapy, radiotherapy and other cancer treatment at 21 essential clinics; and when required for non-urgent assessment as directed by a clinician.

NHS trusts are contacting patients with non-urgent planned operations and routine outpatient appointments to let them know their appointment is postponed. Emergency admissions, cancer treatment and other urgent clinical care will remain unaffected and continue to go ahead.

Barry Dews, strategic head of operations at the North East Ambulance Service, said: “This is not a decision taken lightly and we know some patients will be worried about whether they should still attend their hospital appointment.

“We regularly carry out around 2,800 patient journeys a day and we have already seen this drop to 1,500 patient journeys a day as hospitals start cancelling appointments and some patients are either self-isolating or following government advice to socially distance themselves.

“We are working very closely with hospitals and our NHS commissioners to ensure that all patients are notified of this change and given advice on what they should do next.”

He said that today’s announcement also increases the availability of NEAS staff to respond to emergency calls. This move allows the ambulance service to play its part in the wider population measures to socially distance its crews from others to slow down the spread of the virus.

“We also anticipate that as the virus spreads, some of our own staff will become infected and need to self-isolate at home,” said Mr Dews.

“By removing the routine burdens now, we are better placed to support critically-ill patients as well as our own workforce when they start to become affected in this national emergency.”

Prof. Chris Gray, medical director for the North-East and Cumbria, said: “We completely understand that this will be very difficult news to hear for many of our patients, their families and our staff too. But, this is an important step we must take to ensure we free-up beds and staff, so we can care for the most critically ill in these unprecedented times.

“To reassure people, emergency admissions, cancer treatment and other urgent clinical care will remain unaffected.”

Prof. Gray reassured communities that they don’t need to take any action or call their hospital or GP.

He added: “Please don’t call our busy hospitals, you will be contacted if your non-urgent operation or appointment is affected. If you have not heard it is important that you attend your appointment. Please bear with us and thank you for your support.

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to urge people to help us during these unprecedented times by using NHS services sensibly and social distancing.”