Northern Ireland nursing and midwifery staff vacancies up by 80% since 2017
The number of staff vacancies in Northern Ireland's nursing and midwifery sector has increased by 80% since early 2017.
More than 2,900 jobs were being actively recruited at the start of October.
The number of empty posts has risen steadily in recent years, with health unions warning the system is at crisis point.
Spending on agency staff to plug the gaps has hit record levels, and is currently running at nearly £640,000 a day.
The Department of Health's latest workforce bulletin shows that there are 7,203 vacancies across the health system.
The number of nursing vacancies as of September 30 stands at 2,269, while there are 122 midwifery vacancies.
A further 521 nurse support posts are vacant, with three support midwives wanted.
The bulletin analyses longer-term trends in staffing.
In March 2017 the equivalent figure was 1,619 - meaning vacancies have risen by 80% over the last two and a half years.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) predicted the situation would only worsen in 2020.
Last month nurses in Northern Ireland voted to strike for the first time, citing staffing numbers and pay disputes.
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Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said the situation was unsustainable.
"While the 80% rise in nursing vacancies within the health and social care system over the past few years is a shocking statistic, sadly it comes as no surprise to nurses working in hospital and community settings across Northern Ireland," she said.
"Safe staffing levels is one of the core reasons members of the RCN have chosen, for the first time, to take industrial action and strike action.
"Every day nurses are faced with staffing shortages which makes it increasingly difficult to deliver the care that patients need and expect and, every day, nurses are leaving the profession due to these pressures.
"We believe that if action is not urgently taken to address the recruitment and retention crisis in nursing in Northern Ireland we will see an even worse situation next year."
In a letter to all staff on Friday, the Department of Health's top official, permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, addressed the shortage of nurses. He wrote: "There is a global nursing shortage, with the role of nurses expanding and demand for health care increasing as people live longer.
"The problem is not unique to Northern Ireland, and colleagues in other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland are also contending with serious workforce challenges."
He said Northern Ireland and England have the same nursing and midwifery vacancy rate of 12.1%, and that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that had more nurses and midwives joining the profession than leaving as of March this year.
Mr Pengelly added: "Important investment is being made in growing the Northern Ireland nursing workforce - the number of student nurses and midwives going through our universities is this year at a record level of over 2,680, with 1,025 university places commissioned in 2019 - an all-time high.
"The total places commissioned in 2015/16 was 710, which means it has been increased by 44%, at a time of very serious budgetary pressures. This investment will obviously take time to make a difference on the ground and, in the meantime, we are also recruiting nurses from overseas to help fill the gaps."
The other main workforce vacancies include admin and clerical staff (990 posts) and support services (454 posts).
In the last fortnight this newspaper has reported on the astonishing costs of hiring agency workers to deal with shortages.
In the 12 months to April this year the cost of temporary workers totalled £201,298,475 - or £550,000 a day on average.
The cost continues to rise year on year, from £76,508,610 in 2014/15. In the first three months of the current financial year it totalled £58,043,621 - equivalent to £637,842 every day.
Nursing and midwifery agency fees totalled £52m in 2018/19 - more than doubling in three years since the 2016/17 spend of £23.5m.