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One in five of Northern Ireland's health service staff in administration or clerical posts: report

By Lisa Smyth

Around one in every five health service employees in Northern Ireland is a pen pusher, a report has revealed.

More than 11,000 people are employed in admin and clerical posts here - accounting for 19% of the entire workforce.

It comes at a time when serious concerns are being raised about a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses.

The statistics emerged in a workforce census published yesterday by the Department of Health, which examined staff numbers across the health service at the end of March this year.

It found there are only 1.36 nurses for every person working in clerical posts across the health service here.

There were 11,067 whole time equivalent (WTE) administrative and clerical staff - 19% of the whole health service workforce - compared to 15,111 WTE nurses and midwives.

While nurses and midwives are the largest single staff group, their numbers have dropped by 0.1% since March last year. Admin and clerical staff form the second biggest staff grouping.

The figures come as the health service plunges deeper into a workforce crisis which is causing misery for both patients and staff.

In recent years, a shortage of doctors and nurses has been blamed for the closure and reduced opening hours of emergency departments and other crucial services.

Northern Ireland's hospitals have a shortage of 1,800 nurses, while it has been claimed that overstretched GPs are living in fear of making a fatal error because of their heavy workload.

Intolerable work conditions are leading to a growing number of doctors and nurses choosing to leave Northern Ireland.

The situation has been criticised by two former health ministers. Former Ulster Unionist MLA Michael McGimpsey said the health service could not be expected to perform without proper resources.

"When I was health minister I reduced the amount of health trusts down from 19 to six and took 3,500 administrative jobs out of the system," he said.

"I've been away for a long time but one in five seems too much."

On the continuing shortage of nurses and doctors, he said: "These are the sins of the past coming back to haunt us.

"In my day we were graduating around 700 nurses per annum for the health service - that was allowed to fall away dramatically.

"There has been a major dip over the past six or seven years. Similarly, there was a dip in the number of doctors.

"There are more nurses employed now but it is relative to need. Workforce planning is key, you have to have the right number of people in the right place at the right time to address the needs of patients.

"It's no secret we don't have enough doctors, nurses and health professionals. We don't have enough beds or paramedics.

"There's a shortage all over and that's why the health service is struggling.

"There is a lot of talk about big initiatives like the Bengoa report, but the health service does evolve to meet changing circumstances. The problem is that the budget is inadequate to employ the people you need."

Jim Wells MLA, who has had the DUP whip withdrawn following his criticism of the party leadership, said health trusts are drowning in bureaucracy.

"When you look at these figures, there is clearly an imbalance between medical staff and admin staff, although the trusts would probably argue these staff are necessary," said the former health minister.

"These new figures have highlighted the very real problem that the health service is experiencing.

"With my wife, Grace, being unwell, I get to see first-hand the effect a shortage of nurses and doctors is having on our health service.

"I've spent many, many hours in hospitals and in the nursing home where Grace lives and I've lost count of the number of times I have watched someone on the phone begging nurses to come in on their days off."

Janice Smyth, head of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland (RCN), said nursing shortages will continue until health officials address a number of fundamental issues. These include a pay disparity between nurses here and those working throughout the rest of the UK, and increasing training places.

She said: "The increase in nursing numbers since 2014 isn't as high as for dentists, doctors, social services and professional and technical staff, which is significant. As for the number of administrative staff, we have long said that our nurses are tied up doing admin when they should be nursing.

"For example, there are nurses in the community who have to drive around with no administrative or IT support, go back to an office and share a desk with maybe 16 other nurses."

Yesterday's report showed that, as of March, the health and social care sector employed 65,265 (56,803 WTE) people on either a full-time or part-time basis. The Belfast Trust is the largest trust in Northern Ireland, employing 31% of all health and social care staff (17,777 WTE).

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