Conor McCarthy, an assistant radiographer at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and a branch secretary with the trade union Unison, was speaking to the News Letter amid unprecedented pressure on hospitals.
The number of coronavirus patients in hospital is now lower than at any stage in the pandemic, with no virus patients in ICU, but the hospital system remains under intense pressure.
The latest figures from the Stormont health department show seven of the 11 hospitals in Northern Ireland have effectively run out of beds with more patients requiring care than available capacity – including the Royal.
Waiting lists for treatment are longer than ever and emergency departments are seeing record numbers of patients forced to wait a long time for care.
Mr McCarthy said: “The hospitals are unrecognisable due to the reconfiguration of services right across the hospitals, to deal with coronavirus.
“But despite what people might think, the hospitals turned the taps back on quite a long time ago with regards trying to deal with the backlog of work that needs to be done.”
He continued: “You have this situation now where staff’s mental health is a major issue. There’s fatigue. Nobody has taken any time off because people find it difficult to use annual leave, and a lot of people aren’t actually taking sick leave when they should be because of the guilt factor. Nobody wants to leave colleagues behind in the current circumstances.
“The scenario is now that you have the perfect storm of staff being burnt out, and also staff being affected by coronavirus themselves.
“Both my wife and I had it last year. A lot of people have had it and after the 10 days quarantine people were straight back into work, but a lot are feeling the effects long-term. Add that to the fatigue and the mental health issues.
“We’re just trying to get our way out of Covid, but it looks like we’re on our way into an even greater pandemic of people with ‘normal’ conditions.”
Patricia McKeown, Unison regional secretary, said: “Whilst it is very welcome that the numbers of Covid patients within hospitals has reduced, health and social care workers continue to be under intense pressure as they try to provide the public with the care they need for a wide range of conditions.
“The system was under-resourced and under-staffed before Covid-19 and these problems continue. All political parties within the Northern Ireland Executive must act collectively.”