Health Minister Robin Swann's move to increase midwifery and nursing undergraduate places has been welcomed as a step in the right direction to addressing "chronic" shortages of staff in the health care system.
Mr Swann confirmed Executive funding of up to £2.4m was in place to secure an additional 300 this year, bringing the total to a new all-time high of 1,325.
The New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) document - which helped bring about the restoration of power sharing this year - set out a key priority of providing a further 900 pre-registration nursing and midwifery training places over a three-year period, beginning in 2020/21.
At no time in our recent history has it been more clear that we need an increased number of well-trained nursing, midwifery and other health professionals.Colm Gildernew
It was also a pledge made in order to help resolve the industrial dispute which saw unprecedented numbers of health workers take to picket lines at the end of last year and this year over pay parity with their counterparts in the rest of the UK and under-staffing.
Queen’s University is to be allocated 130 of the new places, with Ulster University receiving 105 places, and the Open University taking on 65. The new places are apportioned among the adult, children’s, mental health, learning disability and midwifery fields of practice.
Stormont Health Committee chair, Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew welcomed the announcement.
"At no time in our recent history has it been more clear that we need an increased number of well-trained nursing, midwifery and other health professionals," he said.
“This announcement is a move in the right direction toward addressing the chronic shortage of staff across our health and social care services.
“The provision of 50 extra spaces for mental health nursing is a promising acknowledgement that our mental health services must be expanded to meet demand as mental health challenges are on the rise across our communities.
“This needs to be built on in the time ahead and the full commitment of 900 additional nursing and midwifery undergraduate places as stated in the NDNA deal must be delivered within the three-year period set out."
This is another step along the path to ensuring that we have enough staff to meet the health and social care demands of NI.Robin Swann
Alliance's health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw MLA said it was essential commitments made in NDNA were delivered "as part of an urgent prioritisation of workforce planning".
“The challenge now will be to ensure the funding is there for the rest of the Assembly term, and workforce planning is carried through in a manner integral to the overall transformation process, whose importance is only reinforced by the current situation," she said.
The move comes after the health minister implemented two annual pay increases for staff.
"I am delighted to now confirm that the funding has been secured to increase the number of training places by 300 this year, as planned and agreed with trade union colleagues in January," Mr Swann said.
“I trust this news will provide a boost to our hard-working nurses and midwives. This is another step along the path to ensuring that we have enough staff to meet the health and social care demands of Northern Ireland into the future. We are obviously not there yet, but we are heading in the right direction.”
The Department of Health has also for the first time commissioned a graduate entry nursing programme to facilitate those whose who have already reached degree level in other fields.
Officials are working on Allied Health Professional and Clinical Psychology training commissioning options for 20/21. Work is also proceeding on ensuring the required level of medical education is provided in Northern Ireland.