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Nursing leader's fears for patient safety and 'burnt out' staff as frontline sickness absence soars

Staff absences linked to Covid have severely hit the health service
Seanín Graham

A NURSING leader has expressed fears about patient safety amid soaring frontline sickness absences - and warned of the impact of workforce shortages on remaining "burnt out" staff.

Rita Devlin, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said she was worried about a "revolving door" scenario with one nurse going off and another coming back to replace them due to exhaustion.

Figures released yesterday by heath trusts revealed the scale of combined Covid-related leave and other sickness absence - with the ambulance service down 25 per cent of its entire workforce.

More than 1,200 employees were off in the Belfast trust due to the virus and a further 1,735 absent for "other reasons", while the Western, Northern, Southern and South Eastern trusts had between 11 to 14 per cent on sick leave.

Ms Devlin said while there was no breakdown by professional group, she was aware of rocketing absences among nurses and healthcare assistants even before the emergence of the more infectious Omicron variant.

Some hospital wards were run entirely by agency nurses prior to Christmas while A&E departments experienced record high sickness levels among staff over the festive period.

"Sickness absence is everywhere - nowhere has escaped it," the RCN director said.

"We have concerns about the staff who remain because obviously it leads to shortages which then leads to staff working longer and harder. But it also has huge patient safety implications because we don’t have the right number of nurses with the right skills in the right places.

"Any one of us can work for a day or two short. You muddle through and prioritise but this has been a constant. We could be looking at a 'revolving door' scenario where one comes back and the other goes off because they’re totally worn out.

"We got through the summer break by the good will of people working harder than they’ve ever worked before and answering the calls for staff to come in.

"But we’re two years in now. Omicron might have a big sharp peak and go down the other side. However, the issue is how do we get those people back who are broken and burnt out?"

With cases expected to peak in the next fortnight, the next six to eight weeks will be a critical period in the health service as a haemorrhaging workforce struggles with rising hospital admissions.

Contingency planning is already being discussed by senior health service managers with planned surgery potentially affected.

Covid hospital admissions are significantly lower than this time last year, which experts link to the success of the vaccination and booster roll-out.

Omicron is also a milder strain than Delta. However, due to increasing number of over-60s now contracting the virus, hospitalisations are anticipated to rise.

Michael Bloomfield, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, said the staffing crisis is likely to escalate further as Omicron cases peak - and warned of delays for seriously ill patients.

"From an ambulance service point of view, as always we do try to focus the services we have available on the sickest patients but we are now seeing the response times even for those most clinically urgent calls are taking much longer,” he said.

"Indeed, there are some patients when they phone in, we have to tell them it’s extremely unlikely we’ll get them an ambulance any time soon. If they’re able to make their own way to hospital with a family member, they should do that.”

 

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