Northern Ireland news

'Virtually no appointments' after 'urgent' NHS workforce appeal

More than 20,000 applications by NHS staff to return to work in Northern Ireland remain "on the desk"
Seanín Graham

HEALTH chiefs cannot disclose how many frontline staff are in post as part of an "urgent" workforce appeal - with one consultant describing a four-month delay in his application as "unfathomable" during a staffing crisis.

It has also emerged that 25,000 applications to a return-to-work scheme as part of the pandemic response remain "on the desk" despite soaring NHS absences linked to Omicron.

While there have been several workforce drives by the Department of Health over the past two years, sources have told The Irish News the latest campaign - launched in September - targeting recently retired surgeons, anaesthetists and theatre nurses has led to virtually no appointments despite almost 1,000 applications.

Dr Peter Maguire, a consultant anaesthetist with 30 years' experience, said he was "extremely disappointed" that no-one has contacted him (apart from three 'holding emails') since he responded to the autumn appeal on the day of its launch by Health Minister Robin Swann to "help maintain important surgery this winter".

The retired medic, who was based in Newry's Daisy Hill Hospital for most of his career until he left in 2019, also questioned how many applicants willing to return to the frontline were doing agency work instead.

"I could work as agency today and would be ready to go. But I felt there was a duty to give support and some respite to those who have worked so tirelessly looking after our community. It is unfathomable I am in this position," he said.

"Our waiting lists are now in a most incredible state. Many patients didn't seek treatment fearful of Covid and not wanting to trouble overburdened health care staff. These patients, some of whom could have delayed diagnosis, really need treatment as soon as possible."

At a Stormont health committee session last week it emerged that 30,499 formal applications have been made to department workforce appeals since the first wave, with just under 5,000 staff appointed to jobs.

A department spokesman said that it was "important to understand the complexity and context" of the appeal launched in September.

"This is for specific roles to join teams for specific procedures at specific sites, all of which are impacted by staff availability and the overall environment facing hospitals," he said.

 

"...The timing has coincided with a prolonged period of high unscheduled pressures across all hospitals which have necessitated redeployment of staff including nurses, allied health professionals, and administrative staff to other roles.

"It is likely that this appeal will generate more appointments when elective services are in a more stable position."

He added that trusts are working "as quickly as possible" to appoint staff, with "pre-employment checks underway".

 

However, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) urged the department to be "determined" in ensuring appointments.

They noted just 16 per cent of overall applications were turned into appointments "which leaves around 25,000 applications on the desk"

 

Mr Mark Taylor, RCS director, said: "We know that winter pressures, staff shortages and the high transmission levels of Omicron are having a significant impact on our health service.

"I would urge the Department of Health to be determined in progressing the administration of these applications so that we can harness the strength and energy of health professionals who are so very keen to support colleagues that are battle weary but who remain committed to providing care to the people when they most need it."

Colm Gildernew, chair of the Stormont, also raised concerns about the rollout of the scheme as trusts struggle with severely depleted staffing levels.

"Workforce is the absolutely key breaking point at the moment so why aren’t they doing more about it," he said.

"I have multiple examples of people who have contacted me trying to get onto the vaccination programme, trying to get onto all sorts of workforce recall schemes. They’ve just had to walk away as there’s been a total lack of any engagement."

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