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Nurse shortage is a serious problem that must be addressed

Although it has been known for some time that Northern Ireland is experiencing a nursing shortage, the fact that the regulator has issued a formal notification to the department of health must be regarded as significant.

This is the first time the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) has taken this step, saying it was its duty to inform the department after identifying a number of failings in almost every area it had inspected.

Olive McLeod, the RQIA's chief executive, told the BBC: ''We are beginning to see big gaps in rotas and nursing home settings and this potentially will have an impact on care.''

While it is not clear what has prompted the regulator to make its concerns known to the department at this time, it has to be acknowledged that alarm over staffing levels has been growing for some time.

It is well documented that the health service is struggling to fill staff positions in hospitals while the situation in the care home sector is particularly difficult.

The shortage of trained nurses was a factor in the recent closure of two care homes while owners in the private sector are being forced to look overseas for staff.

The Royal College of Nursing, which has been flagging up concerns for some time, estimates there are more than 1,500 nursing vacancies across Northern Ireland.

This level of shortfall indicates a deeper issue with regard to workforce planning, something government should do to ensure safe levels of staffing in all areas.

Indeed, the department of health used to publish detailed figures on workforce vacancies across the sector but no longer does so.

It is patently obvious that a severe shortage of nurses has major implications for the delivery of a safe and effective health service in the north.

The department needs to tell the public the extent of the shortages in all areas - including hospitals and care homes - and how it proposes to tackle this crisis.

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