'Exploited' Northern Ireland nurses could be forced to strike over 'crisis' in profession
Nurses in Northern Ireland are being exploited by health chiefs and may be forced to strike over pay and conditions, it has been warned.
Director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, Pat Cullen, said the profession is now in crisis after successive health ministers and civil servants ignored the college's warnings of a "perfect storm".
The shortage of nurses is now so serious that patients face waits for bedpans, basic observations are not being carried out and dying patients are not getting proper care, she said.
Ms Cullen said staffing issues are being exacerbated by the disparity in pay between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and Republic of Ireland, meaning nurses are choosing to work in countries where they can earn more.
The salary for newly qualified nurses in Northern Ireland stands at £22,795, while their counterparts in England and Wales earn £24,214 and this rises to £24,670 in Scotland.
Meanwhile, nurses in the Republic of Ireland have recently negotiated a new pay deal, with nurses there starting out on €29,000 and rising to €42,000.
The maximum a band-five nurse in Northern Ireland can earn is £29,300, regardless of how long they have been working.
Ms Cullen said: "Perhaps it is because 92% of the workforce is female and it's regarded as okay to pay women less. Would it be tolerated in any other profession? I doubt it."
She continued: "Now, there will be some people who will try to tell you that this is not a crisis.
"They will claim, rightly, that every country in the world is struggling to train, recruit and retain the number of nurses they need to provide safe and effective care for patients.
"They will try to suggest that, here in Northern Ireland, we are no worse off than any other country or region. That is debatable.
"They may even state that, whilst we clearly need to build our nursing workforce, this is not a crisis. Well, let me tell you clearly, this is a crisis."
Ms Cullen was speaking at a meeting in Antrim this week to gauge opinion from nursing staff and the public over the state of the health service.
It comes as the RCN prepares to return to the negotiating table with health officials next month regarding the pay deal for 2019/20. Only one person at the event said they would not support strike action in the event a deal cannot be reached in the coming months.
Ms Cullen said, in addition to pay disparity, nurses are becoming increasingly stressed and disillusioned by their working conditions.
"Nurses describe patients having to wait for treatment and care, including having access to toilet and washing facilities, pain relief, and care such as action to prevent bed sores, ulcers and infections," she explained. "They talk about the observation of patients and their condition, with the recording of vital signs not being carried out to the level required.
"Staff coming on shift are often asked to deliver care that has been left undone from the previous shift. Some nurses even report being unable to provide what they refer to as a 'good death' to a dying patient due to staffing shortages and a lack of time to be able to spend with individual patients."
She continued: "We hear politicians talk about human rights but what about the human rights of the patients sitting on waiting lists year after year?
"Who breaks the news to the patient and says, 'Sorry we brought you in this morning and prepared you for surgery but we don't have the theatre space or nurse to look after you, that you have to go back home but we might want you back tomorrow, so stay by your phone in case we call because if you don't answer you'll go to the bottom of the list again'?
"Who tells the cancer patients their chemotherapy can't go ahead because there aren't enough nurses? It's the nurse who does it.
"Nurses are being absolutely, totally, entirely exploited, but we've allowed ourselves to be exploited.
"We will have to make a serious decision about the possibility of moving to total strike action, something no one wants to do and something the RCN has never done before, but we have to draw the line."
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said officials are taking a number of actions to address the nursing shortage, including an ongoing international recruitment campaign and investment to increase the number of training places.
She continued: "Health and social care pay policy is a devolved issue.
"We have made clear that UK-wide pay parity in health and social care would involve significant budgetary and pay policy issues that would require ministerial and cross-departmental decisions."