RCN chief's concerns as 15 ICU nurses quit in past 6 months
FIFTEEN intensive care nurses have resigned from Northern Ireland’s biggest health trust since the first Covid wave with less experienced staff redeployed to help provide cover, The Irish News has learned.
The Belfast trust confirmed the number of ICU nursing departures over the past six months, which they say is "in keeping with general workforce patterns".
However Royal College of Nursing director Pat Cullen insists "an unusually high number" of highly skilled trust nurses have left their posts since the summer, resulting in "unprecedented pressures" for intensive care units - particularly the Nightingale hospital.
According to the nurses' leader less experienced nurses are being redeployed from other areas to assist.
"The existing ICU nurses must then supervise these staff. This is a very stressful situation for both the existing staff and for nursing staff who are redeployed, some of whom are reporting they feel unsafe," she said.
Sources say that some nurses who left sought work in the private sector.
The Irish News is also aware of a significant level of nursing sickness absence within the trust, both Covid and non-Covid related.
A spokesman for the Belfast trust said they could not comment on either the numbers of nurses self-isolating or those on long-term sick leave.
The trust was also unable to provide a figure on the total number of its current ICU nursing workforce or respond to concerns about the anxiety among less skilled nursing staff redeployed to the Nightingale.
A spokesman gave a verbal assurance that Band 5 nurses have appropriate support and were not "replacing" their more experienced colleagues who had left or absent through sick leave.
But Ms Cullen, said the feedback from their members on the ground was worrying and comes ten months after the union took historic strike action over staffing conditions and pay.
"We understand there are unprecedented pressures on staffing levels in intensive care units in Belfast, particularly in the Nightingale. Key factors in the difficulties being experienced are the general shortage of nursing staff that existed before the pandemic alongside an unusually high number of nurses who have left this area of nursing since the first wave," she said.
"The reality on the ground is that the fragility of our health service has been totally exposed through this pandemic. ICU nurses are highly specialised nurses - they are looking after the most ill patients within our health services. This requires a particular skill set and it is impossible to transfer, even an experienced nurse, from another area to take charge in this environment without training and support.
"Staff are being redeployed from other areas to assist. However, the existing ICU nurses must then supervise these staff. This is a very stressful situation for both the existing staff and for nursing staff who are redeployed, some of whom are reporting they feel unsafe."
There are currently more than 2,500 unfilled nursing jobs in the health service, with the nursing vacancy rate in the Belfast trust running at 18 per cent.
The RCN chief said she is "very concerned" that if ICU pressures continue, many more frontline staff will be forced to go on sick leave.
"We cannot afford for this to happen with such a high number of vacancies in this area, and the urgent need for these highly-skilled nurses. However we also know that nurses have nothing left to give – they are feeling stressed and they are exhausted.
"It is time that nursing staff working in these areas are properly valued, paid at the right level and treated professionally, otherwise they will continue to leave. We sincerely hope that if anything is to come out of this pandemic, it is that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future."