Northern Ireland nursing chief warns health service faces meltdown
The health service in Northern Ireland is heading for meltdown in the wake of the Stormont crisis, it has been warned.
The head of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland has said she is seriously concerned about the future of the NHS following the resignation of Martin McGuinness.
Janice Smyth said an urgent contingency plan is needed to ensure the safety of patients in coming months - particularly as freezing weather and heavy snowfall hit Northern Ireland.
The future of current health minister, Michelle O'Neill, has been cast into doubt as a snap election looks increasingly likely.
"We had high hopes for Ms O'Neill, we felt that she could turn things around, and now we have no idea what is going to happen," said Ms Smyth.
"Let's be honest, the health service can't get any worse, it is already full to capacity and the staff can't work any harder.
"It is affecting their health and well-being because they know the care they're providing isn't safe, that's what is stressing them out and making them unwell. They are working more and more and more hours, they aren't able to complete records and they know the importance of doing that.
"Patients are being crammed in everywhere, additional beds are being put into wards that are inappropriate and should be cared for elsewhere.
"Vacancy and sickness levels are through the roof, in one of the Emergency Departments just after Christmas there were four nursing staff off sick and four nursing vacancies.
"To have eight nurses missing from an ED isn't good, you have agency or bank staff covering gaps, you might have just one nurse in a ward with the expertise and knowledge to work there. The one nurse who is competent in that particular field is having to supervise and support the nurses who don't normally work in that clinical field."
Ms Smyth was speaking just days after a nurse from Northern Ireland complained to a national television programme about working conditions here.
The unnamed nurse contacted Channel 5's The Wright Stuff and said the NHS in Northern Ireland is in crisis, blaming the shortage of workers.
She added: "Nurses in Northern Ireland aren't getting to breaking point, they are already broken."
It comes after it emerged that nearly 650 people had to wait at least 12 hours to be admitted, discharged or transferred from emergency departments over the Christmas period. There was an 8% rise in the number of people attending emergency departments from Christmas Eve to January 3 compared to that period last year.
More than a third of patients were not seen within the government's four-hour target.
Meanwhile, GP surgeries across Northern Ireland face unprecedented pressure - with an increasing number coming under threat of closure - due to the state of the health service.
At the same time, waiting times for hospital appointments, day case procedures and operations continue to spiral out of control, leaving thousands living for indefinite periods with painful and debilitating conditions.
In October, an ambitious plan to save the health service in Northern Ireland was unveiled.
At the time, Ms O'Neill said the 10-year plan would improve a system at "breaking point".
Speaking yesterday as the crisis at Stormont continued, Ms Smyth said she was not surprised by the comments by the nurse who rang The Wright Stuff.
"Nurses are already broken but what is most frustrating about all of this is that we have been warning this would happen for years," she said. "Those in charge have completely failed to take our warnings on board.
"I would say that we have upwards of 2,000 nursing vacancies in Northern Ireland, when you take into consideration the hospitals, community and independent nursing homes. If we want to stop a complete collapse, we need to put in place a contingency plan quickly."