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Health service missing 900 nurses as spending doubles on agency staff

By Ann W Schmidt

Published 15/11/2016

Northern Ireland has more than 900 nursing vacancies at a time when health service spending on agency staff has almost doubled in the last five years.

There are currently 920 unfilled nursing positions in Northern Ireland, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill revealed in response to a question from UUP MLA Sandra Overend in the Assembly.

It was reported last week that Northern Ireland's health service has spent £230m on agency staff over the last five years, including £15.8m on nursing and midwifery staff only last year.

Spending on agency staff has nearly doubled since 2011/12 - from £31.7m to £62.2m in the last financial year.

Mrs Overend said: "The revelation that there are 920 nursing vacancies would be shocking in any normal circumstances, but given our local health service is currently in the midst of an unprecedented waiting list crisis, it is simply astonishing that there are so many vacant front line nursing posts."

She added that as winter approached and hospitals become busier, the nursing vacancies should be a matter of priority.

Janice Smyth, the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said these vacancies are a result of an unclear model of care for the health service.

"Because there was no clear sense of direction around where we were going and how we were going to get there, there wasn't proper workforce planning or a proper model to deliver it.

"So you set that alongside a very challenging financial circumstance and what happened was the Trusts started to implement cost-saving measures and those cost-saving measures froze vacant posts and slowed recruitment."

Ms Smyth said that training numbers were cut about five years ago, decreasing spending on training. Because it takes three years to train nurses, the workforce wasn't affected until three years after the original cut.

Now that the shortage is noticeable, the health service isn't saving money because it is spending it on agency staff.

"The reason that we have a problem today with not enough nurses is because we're now suffering the result of short-sighted cost-saving measures that at the end of the day save nothing," she said.

Ms Smyth was positive about the Health Minister's plan to improve the nursing workforce by increasing the number of trainee nurses by 100 this year and next.

"Of course, it takes three years for them to come out the other end, so it's not going to happen in the short term," she said.

"I would sincerely hope that when we are in a position to address the problems that we've got now, that we learn from that and that we make sure that we don't go down this road again."

After the report of spending on agency staff last week, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said her department is working on developing a workforce strategy.

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