Nurses believe Northern Ireland health service is near to collapse, says frontline professional
Northern Ireland nurses are chronically stressed, suffering sleepless nights and pushed to the brink of exhaustion - with some even ending up crying in hospital sluice rooms.
The shocking revelation comes as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) prepares for strike action, amid a dispute around staffing and pay, for the first time in its 103-year history.
Such an unprecedented move "goes against the grain of every single carer in the profession", an experienced frontline nurse and RCN Northern Ireland board member told the Belfast Telegraph.
But Helen McNeilly said her colleagues - who number around 8,000 - have been pushed into making the difficult and highly contentious decision to down tools on December 18, after a two-week 'work to rule' period leading up to that date.
"Nurses are telling us there isn't enough staff to deal with the ever-increasing number of patients that need to be treated... and they feel the whole system is close to collapse," said Helen.
"Nurses are working 13-hour shifts without breaks, they're stressed and they're having sleepless nights worrying about work.
"Not only are they lucky if they get a 20-minute break during a shift that lasts from 7.30am until 8.30pm, many are then staying late to complete documentation and quite often that's unclaimed overtime.
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"The Department of Health's own figures show a 6% increase in demand on the health service every year, but that's certainly not reflected in staffing levels and, furthermore, nurses in Northern Ireland are paid less than their UK counterparts."
Helen, who has seen "massive changes" since she qualified 18 years ago, said nurses have described some of their daily challenges as "deeply worrying".
"Waiting rooms across all departments are bunged," she said.
"There are patients on trolleys and patients being nursed in corridors because there aren't beds in the wards to move them to.
"Nurses tell us days are hectic from start to finish. Years ago, night duty was when everything wound down, but there is absolutely no difference between a day shift and night shift now. It's a constant 24 hours-a-day work cycle with rarely any down time."
Yesterday, a number of non-emergency operations in three trust areas - Belfast, Southern and Western - had to be suspended due to staff shortages.
And, according to Helen, there is "every chance" the other two trusts, the Northern and South Eastern, could be affected in future.
"There's the potential for that to happen anywhere because theatre nursing is a very specialised field that's difficult to cover," she said.
"There are certain areas within hospitals - like intensive care, emergency departments, theatres - where not just any nurse can walk in and do the job.
"Even if we had 1,000 new nurses next week, we couldn't just place them into those areas because it takes time to learn that highly specialist role."
In some cases, the ever-increasing demands of the job have taken their toll on RCN healthcare workers, with many finding themselves reduced to tears.
"There are occasions when nurses, particularly some of the junior staff, have felt completely saturated with the workload and ultimately that's what led to the ballot to strike," Helen said.
"Newly-qualified nurses are often overwhelmed by what they are being asked to do. I've come across people in tears. But nurses will always pull each other out."
She added: "The sluice room is always where nurses go to cry. The door is always locked. The door is always shut, so that's where everybody tends to go if they need a minute."
Referring to the consultant who hit the headlines when he recently told patients in an Emergency Department that he didn't have enough doctors to treat them, Helen said staffing issues in specialised areas were particularly problematic.
"Most wards in hospitals across Northern Ireland are working with agency staff to bolster their numbers," she said.
"We welcome that, but they aren't always staff who know your department, so it can be difficult - but a nurse is better than no nurse.
"If you can't get agency staff, however, it's down to the nurses who are there to take on that extra workload."
Helen said "one of the biggest fears" nurses have is that people may die if nothing is done to improve the health service.
"We need 3,000 more nurses. Vacancy levels are soaring because nurses are leaving to go to Australia, or Britain," she said.
"In Northern Ireland, qualified nurses start on £22,795. In Scotland, it's £24,670 and in England, it's £24,214. Why would nurses chose to come here?"
The RCN board member also said that NHS nurses were "very aware" of the "huge pay discrepancy" between them and agency staff.
"If you're a young NHS nurse earning £12 a hour and, after a year, you realise you can join most agencies and earn £31 an hour doing the same job, why would you stay?" Helen said.
But she added: "We don't have a health minister. Nurses can shout about these issues from the roof tops, but who's listening? That's the difficulty."
Stressing that "strike action isn't being taken lightly", Helen said nurses are determined to fight for justice on staffing levels and pay.
"We want the Department to commit to talks about safe staffing, recruiting nurses, so we don't continue to have 3,000 vacancies and closing the pay gap that exists between here and the rest of the UK," she said.
"We know it's not a quick fix, but these issues must be addressed."
A Department of Health spokesman said: "The Department remains focused on finding a way forward and remains fully committed to ongoing dialogue."
Unison, the trade union representing the majority of health workers here, will also begin 'work to rule' next week as part of its phased industrial action which runs until March 2020. Nurses, paramedics, support service, clerical and social services staff across Northern Ireland's five health trusts will be among those taking part in the first wave of action by Unison, which has almost 30,000 members, on Monday.
Groups of workers will stage actions at different locations and on separate days, with trust bosses receiving a week's notice of their plans.