Nursing workforce shortages hit 'highest known' level
THE number of unfilled jobs in the nursing workforce across Northern Ireland has hit a record high - with new figures revealing more than 2,200 posts are lying vacant.
A breakdown of official workforce vacancies obtained by the Irish News show a shortage of more than 1,800 registered nurses and midwives as well hundreds of vital support staff at a time of unprecedented NHS pressures and spiralling waiting lists.
The support workers, previously known as auxiliaries but now referred to as nursing assistants, are "vital" to the sector with nurses "totally dependent on them", according to a leading union leader.
Working under the direction of registered staff, support nurses' work includes ensuring the personal hygiene of patients, observations, administering food and drink as well as some treatments.
Latest figures - which relate to the end of March this year - show there are 343 unfilled support jobs.
Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said the current level of vacancies were the "highest it's ever been".
"These are certainly the worst I have ever known and come at a time when we have the lowest number of pre-registration (student nurses) qualifying from university after places were cut between 2011 and 2016," she said.
"Vacancies are recorded as those jobs which have been empty for three months but we know there are even more since March. It also doesn't take into account sickness absence which is very high at the moment."
While the number of student nursing places has been increased to 1,000 following successive cuts by Stormont ministers, Ms Smyth said there will still be a 'catch-up' period.
Earlier this month the chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, Valerie Watts, was forced into an embarrassing u-turn after incorrectly informing the NI Affairs Committee in London that the number of workforce shortages across the north's entire health service totalled 1,800. The real figure is in excess of 5,600.
The Department of Health routinely published vacancy numbers up until three years ago.
Ms Smyth said it was "only right" that all information around job shortages in the health sector was shared in an open manner.
A spokeswoman for the department said it "fully accepted" that the vacancy figures continue to highlight the pressure that the system faces in recruiting staff to meet demand.
She added that in May the department had published its Health and Social Care Workforce Strategy 2026 which sets out its goals for a "workforce that will match the requirements of a transformed system".
"It should also be noted that vacancy rates can include newly created posts as well as existing ones," she said.
"Since March 2018, funding has been allocated to a range of transformation proposals. As a result, in the short term, it is likely that the overall number of vacancies will increase further, because (the service) will be actively recruiting to new posts associated with transformation."