A nursing leader has voiced concerns about staff leaving the profession after struggling with the pressures of the Covid emergency.
Pat Cullen, the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland (RCN), made the comments after new figures showed that 1,055 nurses here left their roles last year.
The figures were released by Health Minister Robin Swann after a question from DUP MLA Robin Newton. The total includes 462 who retired and 823 who left for other reasons including ill health or termination, death in service, resignation, end of contract or moving to another HSC (health and social care) organisation.
The figures indicate a nurse leaving a HSC organisation, but this does not necessarily mean they left the profession entirely.
Mr Swann also noted that as of December, there were 3,322 pre-registered nursing and midwifery students in Northern Ireland, which is due to peak at 4,182 students in 2022/23.
Ms Cullen told the Belfast Telegraph the figures were broadly in line with previous years, but she feared what might happen after the pressures of the pandemic are reduced.
"Unfortunately, we don't have the detail on why these nurses have left the HSC other than having retired and this figure would be similar to previous years. What we do know, however, is that when surveys have been conducted in this area, it reveals that after retirement, the second highest reason for leaving is too much pressure," she said.
"Understandably, over the past year, nurses working in hospitals, the community and independent sector have been under unprecedented pressure. What we are most concerned about is what will happen when things return to normal and what the impact of having worked through this pandemic will be."
She said many RCN members had expressed concern at their ability to sustain what they are currently doing.
"Longer shifts and cancelling of annual leave will leave their mark. The vacancy rates in nursing in Northern Ireland are well-documented," she said.
"At this moment in time we cannot afford to lose any more nursing staff. That is why the RCN is calling for a fair pay rise for nurses. If they are not valued and rewarded properly, we are going to store up even more problems in the future."
She welcomed that nursing places are rising due to an extra 900 places over the next three years, which was agreed as part of the deal for nurses suspending strike action this time last year.
"It will of course take another three years before we see these nurses in the system but it's a step in the right direction."
Meanwhile, a "significant" proportion of frontline doctors face "ongoing distress" after working in the high pressure conditions of the coronavirus pandemic's first wave, new research suggests.
A study based on responses from more than 5,400 frontline doctors in the UK and Ireland found nearly half (45%) reported psychological distress as pandemic accelerated to its initial peak in 2020.
Researchers from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) and psychologists from the University of Bath surveyed emergency, anaesthetics and intensive care professionals during the lead up, peak and post-peak of the first wave of infections last year.
Overall researchers concluded: "Our findings reflect a pattern of elevated distress during the acceleration and peak phase of the current pandemic, some degree of natural recovery and a significant minority continuing to experience residual ongoing distress."
Emergency medicine doctor Tom Roberts, from the RCEM, who led the research, said: "Our findings highlight the stark realities for many doctors across the UK and Ireland in responding to the public health crisis and the toll this has placed on their mental health. The extent of the challenge has at times been overwhelming and we see from our results the real-life impact this has on individuals' wellbeing."
Professor Edd Carlton, from the RCEM, said: "Workers across the NHS have responded to Covid-19 with incredible bravery, commitment and dedication. Over and above warm words, what we need most is proper support to help deal with the impact this has had on us all."