Northern Ireland

Union chief slates 'unprecedented' use of charity volunteers to provide nursing cover in busy hospital

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing
Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing

THE head of the biggest nursing union in Northern Ireland has branded the use of St John ambulance volunteers to provide cover in an overstretched hospital on Year's Eve as "unbelievable".

Janice Smyth, head of the Royal College of Nursing said it was the first time charity volunteers had ever been employed to carry out basic nursing duties in any of the north's hospitals - and warned the development exposed the "gross shortage" of nurses in the health service.

The Irish News yesterday revealed that managers at Antrim Area hospital had resorted to the drastic measure due to severe short staffing and a spike in A&E demand on the evening of December 31.

St John staff were deployed across a number of wards as well as the hospital's casualty department, with trust chiefs describing the volume of patients as "unprecedented".

Ms Smyth said she was aware the trust's most senior nurses "did not take the decision lightly" but raised concerns they were placed in a position where they forced to use charity workers.

"While I support the decision of the director of nursing this development raises many issues. St John staff are not registered nurses and their employment put additional pressure on nurses who were already there that evening as a higher degree of supervision would have been required.

"There are also safeguarding concerns...however I am aware that the directors of nursing were left with no choice. But is unbelievable it has come to this. We know that many shifts are going unfilled and are worried about levels of staffing for safe and effective care."

Such is the extent of staffing pressures that Northern trust chiefs took the unusual step on Monday evening of appealing on social media for the first time for off-duty nurses and healthcare assistants to come to work.

In a twitter post, they wrote: "Antrim Area & Causeway hospitals continue to face severe pressure. We would be grateful for any of our nurses and healthcare assistants who were available and willing to work tomorrow morning or any other part of the week."

But the union chief slated the appeal and said she was also aware that nurses were receiving texts while they were on leave urging them to do extra shifts.

"I would be very concerned that nurses can't even get rest days. Sickness absence in the workforce is now at 10 per cent and this does nothing to help."

The Northern Health and Social Care Trust last night said all St John volunteers who worked in Antrim Area hospital on New Year's Eve were insured to work in the hospital and if they had the necessary Access NI checks.

"The volunteers worked under the direction and delegation of registered nurses and the additional support provided helped to alleviate the pressures on very busy staff, thus allowing them to focus on other priorities," a spokeswoman said.

The Trust did not pay for the additional St John Ambulance cover, she added.

The Irish News approached St John Ambulance for comment yesterday but no-one was available.

Meanwhile, the Health and Social Board apologised yesterday after it mistakenly said it was due to publish collated A&E hospital waiting time figures. A spokeswoman said they will be releasing figures today - but only to journalists who submit a request.