600 nurses from Philippines to be recruited in bid to fill Northern Ireland gap
More than 600 nurses are to be recruited from the Philippines in an attempt to plug Northern Ireland's chronic nursing shortage.
The region's health service is running on a shortage of 1,500 nurses - 10% below capacity - with health chiefs warning of a difficult year ahead.
A lack of qualified nurses across the EU and concerns over Brexit has meant that health bosses must now look overseas for staff to fill vacant posts until enough local nurses can be trained up.
This is one of a number of measure being taken by the Department of Health to address the staffing shortage.
In an interview with the Press Association, the region's chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle said the staffing problem arose because the supply from undergraduate recruitment has not kept up with demand and an ageing workforce.
She added that the overseas recruitment initiative is only intended as an interim measure "to get through the difficult years".
"The answer for us is to grow our own workforce. We can't be reliant on other places to do that for us. The overseas programme is an interim step to help balance things while we get to the other side," said Professor McArdle.
There has been greater investment in nurse student places over the past two years with the Department of Health increasing pre-registration nursing student places by 38%, from 650 places to 900 - an increase of 38%, she said.
There are between eight and 10 applicants for every undergraduate place.
However, the first band of new nurses will not complete their university qualifications until 2019.
One option to help balance out the workforce was to recruit from other EU countries. But Professor McArdle said Europe is in a similar position to the UK and Ireland in terms of nursing.
She said there is an assumption that many EU nurses are becoming worried about the impact of Brexit.
"The facts are there aren't many (nurses) there (across the EU).
"We are aware that the number of nurses on the NMC (Nursing and Midwifery Council) register has declined quite significantly in the last year. They are telling us that the number of EU nurses are dropping off the register very quickly.
"I don't think anyone has the answer (as to why), but I think there are a lot of assumptions around nurses becoming worried in light of Brexit. Certainly we would have to consider it," said Professor McArdle.
She said this is the reason a decision was taken to launch an overseas recruitment programme.
"Through that programme we are hoping to recruit 622 nurses, mainly from the Philippines, with some from India, by 2020.
"We have a history with the Philippines, and to a lesser extent India, from the last shortage around 2000," Professor McArdle said.
She warned that a difficult year lies ahead but insisted there is "light at the end of the tunnel."
"We are running with just under 10% vacancy levels. In the context of Northern Ireland we have probably in the region of between 15,000 and 17,000 posts and about 1500 vacancies. That is in context of a workforce of 15,000.
"That is significant, but in the context of what is happening around us, it certainly isn't as bad as what would be happening in England or the Republic of Ireland and it is probably on a par with Scotland and Wales.
"This year is going to be difficult in terms of nurse recruitment but hopefully from then on in we will start to see light at the end of the tunnel," said Professor McArdle.
"We just need to get through this difficult stage.
"I fully recognise that staffing levels are a source of great concern to nurses. I want to assure them - and the public - that the issue is being actively addressed on a number of important levels," she added.
Other measures to address the nursing shortfall include a Return To Practice programme, to encourage nurses who are out of practice to return to the profession, as well as a programme to encourage nurse retention.
A pilot scheme is also to be introduced that would see admin staff taking on administrative work that nurses are currently having to do.