Chief Nursing Officer: Chronic staff shortage being 'actively addressed'
THE chief nursing officer has said it is hoped more than 600 nurses - mainly from the Philippines - will be recruited by 2020 in attempt to plug a chronic shortage in Northern Ireland.
The region's health service is running on a shortage of 1,500 staff - 10% below capacity - with warning of a difficult year ahead.
A lack of qualified nurses across the EU and concerns over Brexit has meant they must look overseas to fill vacant posts until enough local nurses can be trained up.
In an interview with the Press Association, chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle said the supply from undergraduate recruitment has not kept up with demand and an ageing workforce.
She said overseas recruitment is only intended as a 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."
Prof McArdle said the Department of Health has increased pre-registration nursing student places by 38% over the past two years, from 650 places to 900.
There are between eight and 10 applicants for every undergraduate place.
However, the first band of new nurses will not qualify until 2019.
One option is to recruit from other EU countries, but Prof McArdle said they are in a similar position.
"The facts are there aren't many (nurses) there," she said.
"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."
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."
The Irish News revealed last year how a campaign costing more than £500,000 to recruit overseas nurses - which saw staff dispatched to countries across Europe as well as the Philippines and India - had led to just 12 jobs being filled so far.
There was also criticism of an English language test which has seen a high failure rate.
Prof McArdle warned that this year will be "difficult" in terms of recruitment but "hopefully from then on in we will start to see 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 1,500 vacancies.
"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.
"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."
Other measures to address the nursing shortfall include a Return To Practice programme, as well as a programme to encourage nurse retention.
A pilot scheme is also to be introduced that would see other NHS staff taking on nurses' administrative work.