Editor's Viewpoint: Bleak winter ahead in a struggling NHS
The parlous state of the NHS in Northern Ireland is laid bare in stories in this newspaper today. We are spending £637,842 a day in hiring expensive agency nurses and other medical specialists to plug holes in hospital services. There are almost 7,000 vacancies across the NHS in the province, including almost 3,000 nurses and midwives.
And already, before the winter pressures are anywhere near their peak, a number of non-emergency operations in three of the five health trusts were suspended because of staff shortages.
It is a bleak mid-winter prospect in the NHS and questions must be asked how services were allowed to deteriorate to this level.
The lack of a local devolved government is a huge impediment to beginning to sort out the mess, although it must be remembered that previous administrations helped to create some of the problems.
It was local politicians who decided to pay nurses less than their counterparts in other regions of the UK - up to almost £2,000 a year when compared to Scotland for example.
But it is not the only reason why nurses are going on strike next month. According to one frontline nurse who spoke to this newspaper, they are being run ragged trying to keep up with the yearly 6% increase in demand for services. Many routinely work 13-hour shifts and then some extra unpaid hours on paperwork.
As the nurse says, why would a recently qualified nurse earning £12 a hour remain in the NHS when she or he would earn £31 a hour working for an agency?
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There is an impression that the NHS here has been allowed to drift along for far too long without proper planning. It is not so many years ago that the number of nurses in training were cut and while they may now be at record levels in universities, it will take time for them to feed through into the system. Then comes the problem of retaining them.
Nursing staff, giving the growing complexity of their job, cannot simply be dropped into areas like intensive care without proper training. So even if they were promised comparable pay to counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales, and they were to dramatically curtail the number of agency nurses required, things would take time to change. The NHS is like a massive tanker, changing course is a slow process.
Lack of political direction and innovative policies only make the job more difficult.