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Trade unions say 'warning' letter to Belfast trust about service breakdown is about 'saving lives' - not pay

Concerns have been raised about the shortage of nursing staff within the Belfast trust where are 1,500 unfilled posts
Seanín Graham

THE trade union chief who signed a letter warning of the "total breakdown" of services and staffing in the Belfast trust has insisted the move was about "saving lives".

Ray Rafferty of Unison said the involvement of Northern Ireland's other main healthcare trade unions in the correspondence resulted from frontline demands being "ever greater than before" at a time when the workforce was struggling with severe shortages.

He confirmed the trust - the biggest in the north and where the main children's hospital as well as regional trauma services are based - is currently short of 1,500 nurses.

Read More: Record high £10m bill for agency staff in Belfast trust in just one month

In yesterday's Irish News, details of the letter were revealed with fears expressed that the "perfect storm" of Covid, cancelled surgeries, high vacancy levels, increased sickness rates, stress and an "ever growing" staff retention problem will lead to the collapse of vital services.

The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and Nipsa all contributed to the correspondence, which was sent to Belfast trust chief executive, Dr Cathy Jack, along with a request seeking an urgent meeting.

The meeting took place on Monday and came a week after eight intensive care nurses quit their jobs.

"This letter was a collective decision of our concerns that we had been raising for quite some time," Mr Rafferty, who chairs a group of healthcare trade unions, said.

"The bottom line is that this wasn't about pay. This was about the safe delivery of services to patients in need...in essence it was about saving lives.

"Between Covid and emergency care, demand is now greater than before with patients waiting years for planned surgery.

"People are dying on waiting lists.

"We've also run out of resources for domiciliary care so there are more delayed hospital discharges. The other problem is that we've less staff as people are resigning. So there is a need to stabilise the workforce."

One of the immediate issues facing the trust is staffing cover over Christmas after it emerged some agencies will be unable to provide workers from the third week in December until early New Year.

"Coming up to Christmas there was normally a downturn in services to give a bit of breathing space. But 90 per cent of the work that is currently being done is all emergency based and that's not going to be reduced," Mr Rafferty explained.

"We are down about 2,500 staff in total in the Belfast trust, of which 1,500 are nursing vacancies.

"We're encouraging staff to take their annual leave as they're burnt out. But agency and bank staff can choose not to work over Christmas meaning the burden falls on our substantive staff."

Following Monday's meeting, the Unison chair confirmed one of the issues discussed was delayed recruitment, with some jobs not being filled for up to nine months.

"The HR department within the trust said they would take back some of the recruitment function that was devolved to the Business Service Organisation," he added.

"We also discussed a redeployment exercise for staff to support frontline nurses in ICU, emergency care and domiciliary care.

"Under normal circumstances, areas like ICU care have one-to-one cover.

"Within the Belfast trust currently, you have one nurse looking after two patients or more - which shows how much we're scraping the barrel as far as staff are concerned."

The Belfast Trust has said it remains under severe pressure and shares the unions' concerns.

A spokeswoman confirmed it had facilitated a series of meetings with union representatives and senior trust managers to "identify solutions to safeguard services over the coming weeks as well as considering longer term solutions".

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