No ban on Christmas holiday leave for healthcare staff in Northern Ireland, department pledges

Hundreds of planned operations were cancelled across Northern Ireland's hospitals last year due to winter pressures.
Seanín Graham

HEALTH officials in Northern Ireland have confirmed they will not be following the lead of Leo Varadkar and proposing a ban on Christmas holiday leave for senior healthcare staff.

The move, which was outlined by the taoiseach last week to tackle winter pressures, provoked a backlash on social media among the Republic's nurses and doctors who were already rostered to work lengthy shifts over the festive period.

The Irish News asked the Department of Health if its most senior civil servant, permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, supported the idea of restricting annual leave in late December and early January following last year's crisis that led to a record number of cancelled operations.

Such was the level of nursing shortages and A&E demand at Antrim Area hospital on New Year's Eve last year that St John Ambulance volunteers were drafted in for the first time to provide cover on wards.

Mr Pengelly, who is also the chief executive of the north's Health and Social Care (HSC) system, has pledged an extra £10 million worth of funding to improve waiting times, patient discharges and ambulance turnaround at A&E departments over coming months.

While he did not respond directly to the Irish News query, a spokeswoman for the Department said it was "always always willing to learn from initiatives in other jurisdictions" but did not feel restrictions on Christmas leave would be fair.

"Imposing blanket bans on leave - and depriving staff of time with their families - would be unfair and inappropriate," she said.

"The dedication, commitment and expertise of our staff are vital during winter periods and right throughout the year."

The Department added there was "no quick fix" to winter pressures on the island, which were linked to a big increase in the number of older people with complex needs and more demand for services.

Concerns have been raised over the past three years about the reliance on costly agency nurses and locum doctors during busy holiday periods.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), said it was important to take whatever steps necessary to provide "safe, effective care for 365 days a year".

"We must also take into account the needs of staff - annual leave should be done in a fair way but with processes in place for exceptional circumstances," she said.

"If you don't plan around annual leave and there are already staff shortages we need to be careful. Last year we had the use of charity volunteers on wards to carry out basic nursing duties - which was unbelievable."

Dr Anne Carson, chair of the British Medical Association's consultants' committee, called for better planning in relation to the healthcare workforce.

"We are continually operating with a severe shortage of doctors and other healthcare staff," she said.

"...we need to address issues around workforce planning and the recruitment and retention of medical staff. This means continuing the process of transformation as outlined in Health and Wellbeing 2026, which was published over two years ago."


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