Northern Ireland Ambulance Service staff morale 'at rock bottom'
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has said it will be months before it can provide full staffing cover at the weekends.
It had 24 fewer staff than required on Saturday, and ambulances from the voluntary sector had to be drafted in to handle less serious calls.
John McPoland of NIAS said there were staffing difficulties. and they were trying to resolve the problems.
"It's well documented that our frontline staff are unhappy," he said.
Mr McPoland said NIAS would "triage" calls in its call centres "to make sure that the most seriously-ill people get the response as quickly as we possibly can".
It is understood there have been significant staffing issues for a period of about two years, especially on Saturdays, when the service is operating at about 80% of full capacity.
A shortage of emergency medical technicians (who work alongside paramedics), high levels of sickness and annual leave have all contributed to the weekend pressures.
Anne Speed of the the union Unison said staff morale was at rock bottom.
"They are demoralised, they don't see a way out, you know, a vicious circle of reliance on overtime," she said.
'The right measures'
Health Minister Michelle O'Neill defended NIAS, saying it was currently recruiting new staff.
"I think we can improve things in terms of staff morale, but I think that over the weekend the ambulance service took the right measures," she said.
It is understood NIAS will have to rely on crews from the voluntary sector until the new emergency medical technicians are trained.