Northern Ireland health crisis: Nursing chief asks 'how many lives must be lost before action taken?'
One of the most senior nurses in Northern Ireland has asked how many lives must be lost before action is taken to ensure patient safety.
Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said the NHS has previously been handed substantial financial packages to save lives.
And she said the crisis currently facing the health service is critical enough to warrant a cash injection that will bring an end to the ongoing industrial action by healthcare staff across Northern Ireland.
"We're now in a situation where there are 306,000 people on waiting lists for outpatient appointments," she said.
"If that isn't an emergency and a critical situation, then I don't know what is."
Her comments come as it is revealed that health bosses have spent £500m to tackle hospital waiting lists over the last nine years.
The figure has come to light as it emerged that waiting lists here are the worst they have ever been, with most recent statistics showing the number of people waiting longer than a year for a first outpatient appointment grew by 3,000 in just three months.
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The eye-watering £500m sum has attracted anger from unions as patients brace themselves for further misery in the face of crippling industrial action involving Unison and the RCN.
Both unions are calling for pay parity with the rest of the UK, while the RCN has warned that wages and conditions are driving nurses out of the health service and putting patients at risk.
Most recently, three health trusts have cancelled elective surgeries due to a lack of nurses.
The shortage of nurses is also playing a significant role in growing waiting times for hospital appointments and in emergency departments.
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Expressing bewilderment at the insistence by health officials that no additional funding can be made available to bring an end to the industrial action, Ms Cullen said: "The last significant emergency that we dealt with in Northern Ireland in the health service was the swine flu outbreak.
"In that case, there was a facility to ensure that money was found at very short notice and services were put in place, including staff, resources and infrastructure, that were required to look after patients.
"Additional funding was found within a matter of hours and there was no limit to the funding to make sure that the people in Northern Ireland were protected."
Ms Cullen also hit out at the way the £500m used to tackle waiting lists has been used and said health bosses should have invested in permanent staff.
"It is evident from these figures that there has been a complete lack of robust commissioning and planning," she said.
"Treating the symptoms and not the problem has not worked, and as a result waiting lists have never been worse.
"If this money had been invested properly in proper workforce planning and in, for example, ensuring there were enough nurses in the right places to deliver the right services, we may not be facing the situation we are in currently.
"Issues such as this are the very reason that the RCN, for the first time in our 103-year history, has been forced to take industrial action and strike action. These problems will not go away until those in positions of power decide to do something about it."
Meanwhile, John Patrick Clayton from Unison said: "Workers who have been forced to take industrial action in response to unsafe staffing levels, and to secure the pay award they are entitled to, may well question why hundreds of millions has been spent on waiting lists initiatives without solving the fundamental problems.
"If this kind of resource had been put into proper workforce planning we would not be in the situation we are in now with crisis waiting lists and over 7,000 staff vacancies."
According to Health and Social Care Board figures, £76.77m was allocated to address waiting lists in 2011/12. Almost £100m was made available in the following two years.
However, since then, the amount of money has significantly reduced, to just £40.66m this financial year.
At the same time, hospital waiting lists have risen considerably.
A spokesman from the Department of Health said: "The reduction in extra monies is the fundamental reason for the growth in waiting times over the last five years. It is why the Department has repeatedly made clear that sustained and significant investment will be required to tackle the backlog.
"It is also clearly essential to tackle the root causes of the capacity gap. This will involve growing our workforce and radically reshaping health and social care services.
"The Department has demonstrated its commitment to transforming services, not least through the public consultations this year on reshaping stroke and breast assessment care.
"It should be noted that we faced significant criticism for these transformation proposals.
"We remain committed to the vital task of tackling waiting lists and reshaping services.
"Both will require sustained funding commitments and political leadership."