Northern Ireland news

Union chief warns 'long way to go' to solve nurse staffing crisis after 1300 student training places confirmed

Successive cuts to the nurse training budget which began a decade ago led to a massive increase in agency spending
Seanín Graham

A NURSING chief has warned there is still "a long way to go" in replacing student places axed a decade ago - after an increase in the nurse training budget was confirmed for this year.

Rita Devlin, acting director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) trade union, said she welcomed health minister Robin Swann's announcement yesterday that 1,300 pre-registration nursing and midwifery places will be available at Northern Ireland universities.

But she said "short sighted" cuts to undergraduate places by successive health ministers - which began under Michael McGimpsey and continued under Edwin Poots and Jim Wells until the practice was reversed by Michelle O'Neill in 2016/17 - had been devastating for the profession, with almost 3,000 nursing jobs currently lying empty.

An audit report published last summer was also scathing of the cuts, which took place during a period of increased patient demand.

The new training places are for adult, children, mental health and learning disability nursing.

Nurse and midwives account more than than a third of the north's healthcare workforce.

Auditors last year said the "short-term savings" made by the Department of Health in reducing the nurse training budget led to 732 fewer nursing training places created between 2011-12 and 2016-17, compared with 2009-10 levels - and resulted in a massive hike on agency staff spending.

Ms Devlin said: "The need for safe staffing and an increase in student nurse places formed part of the strike action by RCN members last year and we see these increases announced by Mr Swann as a small part of the solution to our current nurse vacancy crisis.

"As the National Audit Office report last year starkly outlined, an historical short-sighted cut in the number of nurses being trained led to vacancies trebling from 770 in 2013 to over 2,700 in 2019.

"The RCN hopes that the lessons of the past have now been learnt since it was successive health ministers over a lengthy period of time who cut the numbers of nurses being trained, leaving us in the untenable situation of not enough nursing staff to deal with a rising demand for care.

"While there is still a long way to go, we hope that the situation that nurses found themselves in is never repeated again."

A total of 711 new training places will be at Queen's University Belfast, 427 at Ulster University, and 187 through the Open University.

Mr Swann said this was an increase of 87 per cent from five years ago.

The department, which is responsible for workforce planning, has been criticised by trade unions for its lack of long-term planning.

Mr Swann said a staffing strategy sets out a "clear need" for the workforce to be "both of sufficient size to deliver safe care and also has the best possible combination of skills and expertise".

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