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Concern over health chiefs not collating nursing shortages

Concerns have been raised about the collation of figures on nursing shortages and its impact on student nurse funding
Seanín Graham

DEPARTMENT of Health chiefs are no longer "routinely collating" the number of nursing job shortages in Northern Ireland - sparking concerns about how they manage risk.

The department previously published detailed statistics on workforce vacancies across the entire sector - but the the last information bulletin was released two years ago.

Information obtained by the Royal College of Nursing shows there has been a significant increase in unfilled nursing posts in the north, with more than 1,200 at the end of March this year leading to fears about safe staffing levels and the impact on patient care.

The Irish News asked the department to provide the latest breakdown for June but a spokeswoman replied: "I'm sorry but the information on staff vacancies is not currently routinely collated or published."

When asked how it manages risk if it is unaware of staff nursing numbers, a spokeswoman replied: "Trusts do not rely on this statistical publication for their recruitment plans and management of vacancies."

Janice Smyth, director of the RCN in the north, last night questioned how the department can quantify demand for student nurse places - which it funds - if it is unaware of the scale of staff shortages.

Last month there was an outcry following a decision by the department's most senior civil servants to axe £1m from a training programme for specialist nurses - that ultimately resulted in a dramatic u-turn by within days.

In what was a highly unusual intervention, former Sinn Féin health minister Michelle O'Neill called for the funding cut to be "reversed immediately" and said the decision was at odds with her 2026 blueprint plan for the future of the health service.

Ms Smyth said: "The department, as commissioner of pre-registration nursing places (student nurses) has to monitor vacancies to assess demand and ensure that supply meets demand.

"The question for me is how can we assure ourselves we are training enough nurses - and why the department granted extra funding to those places last month.

"I am also concerned about risk. If you don't collate figures, how do you assess the level of risk? I think this is a dereliction of duties if ever there was one."

A department spokeswoman added that its publication on vacancies was unavailable "due changes in how the information is accessed".

"Work is underway to set up this new process and develop new analysis. The publication will be available again when this process has been completed.

"The department is developing a workforce strategy, under Delivering Together 2026, which will cover all aspects of the workforce, including retention and recruitment."

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