Health service without a workforce plan is 'dangerous'
THE lack of a health service workforce plan is "highly dangerous", a leading trade union has said as hospitals struggle to cope with an influx of winter patients.
The Irish News revealed earlier this week that Antrim Area Hospital had to ask St John Ambulance volunteers to help provide cover due to severe staff shortages and a spike in A&E demand on new year's eve.
Janice Smyth, Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Nursing, said it was an unprecedented move created by a shortage of NHS nurses.
"This is heading only in one direction and in the absence of a workforce plan this is highly dangerous," she said.
"Once broken it is not easily fixed."
She said there were 1,500 nursing vacancies waiting to be filled and the healthcare system is struggling to cope.
"It is an unprecedented step and it is another sign our health and social care system is in crisis," she said.
"We don't have enough nursing staff."
A St John Ambulance spokeswoman said its volunteers' actions were "nothing spectacular".
"The support is limited, it really is supporting patients, making tea and keeping them company," she said.
Politicians have also said a strategy should be put in place to address the shortfall in nurses.
Sinn Féin health spokesman Pat Sheehan commended staff but warned that some measures taken to plug the gaps were not sustainable.
"A workforce strategy is needed to begin to address existing staff shortages and to ensure we retain the existing staff who continue to deliver vital health services under extremely challenging situations," he said.
DUP assembly member Peter Weir blamed Sinn Féin for the absence of devolved government at Stormont to tackle the problems.
"On her first day as health minister Michelle O'Neill stressed the priority she placed on reforming our health service to deliver for patients," he said.
"Today however the former health minister plays the role of a disinterested observer as our health service faces major pressures, and our health service staff work tirelessly to deliver the very best service to the public."
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said she had spoken to trade union representatives and some staff concerned about Craigavon Area Hospital's A&E.
She said over the last few days the department was a "scene of chaos".
"People are queued right back to the shop in the foyer with standing room only. People lying on the floors being sick, just absolute distress and a stressful situation for staff," she said.
Seamus O'Reilly, medical director of the Northern Health Trust, said the demand for A&E services from elderly patients has been greater than expected.
And he called for better leadership from politicians.
"The civil servants are already moving forward on transformation of the health and social care system in Northern Ireland," he said.
"But yes, if the politicians were in Stormont and if we had a health minister then we could move that forward at a pace."