Barring recruitment of nurses from the EU 'will cause health service to collapse'
The health service will crumble if nurses from EU countries are prevented from working here, experts have warned.
The head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland made the stark claim as uncertainty over the future status of EU nationals living and working in the UK continued in the aftermath of the historic Brexit vote.
Janice Smyth said the shortage of nurses here was so severe and so potentially dangerous that any impediments placed on the recruitment of staff from outside the UK could prove catastrophic for the health service.
"At a conservative estimate, there are at least 1,500 nursing vacancies in Northern Ireland, so we can't afford to lose even one nurse," she explained.
"We need to understand that we need every nurse that we have got working in our system here to stay, and we also need to recruit more."
Ms Smyth added that a forthcoming review would "provide a clear direction for what model of care we are going to be delivering here".
"I absolutely anticipate that there will be an increase in nurse-led services (in the future), so we're going to need more nurses than we currently have," she said.
"We don't need anything that is going to impact on our ability to recruit nurses.
"I would say that with the situation in relation to European nurses in the UK or Northern Ireland, our politicians need to pay particular attention to them, as well as doctors and other healthcare workers."
Ms Smyth said she did not believe that health service could survive without employees from the outside the UK.
"We could if we didn't have 1,500 odd vacancies, but we have a big black hole as it is," the RCN head warned.
"All that you have to do is look at the recent inspection by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority .
"It looked at two wards and the emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital (and) every other sentence was about staff shortages.
"Like I said, we can't afford to lose one nurse.
"I think they need to look very closely at European residents working in the health service across the four countries, but particularly in Northern Ireland, where there is a significant shortage of both doctors and nurses, and we need to be able to recruit from wherever we can get people from."
Earlier this week, it was claimed that Britain's decision to leave the EU was already having a significant impact on the recruitment of European staff to the health service.
Professor Jane Dacre, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said there was anecdotal evidence suggesting that EU doctors felt uncomfortable about continuing to live and work in the UK, and they were not applying for posts as a result.
"In relation the medical workforce, this is on top of a history of an increasing number of trainee doctors applying to go and work in other countries, particularly in Australia," she added.
"This just adds to the concern that there has been over the last six months."
This newspaper asked for a comment from the Department of Health, but none was forthcoming.