Nurse leader warns that further redeployment of staff two years into pandemic could have 'dire consequences'
A NURSING leader has warned that further reployment of the frontline amid soaring absence rates is leaving staff "struggling" to look after patients safely.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN) director Rita Devlin called for an "urgent plan of action" to tackle severe shortages in the profession, which could have "serious consequences" and escalating delays for planned operations.
Earlier this week a trainee surgeon in the Belfast trust revealed the majority of theatre nurses at Musgrave Park Hospital - Northern Ireland's main site for orthopaedic surgery - who were redeployed during the first Covid wave have now quit the NHS, with many going to the private sector or retiring.
Just 14 out of 100 highly-skilled Musgrave theatre staff remain in post.
As a result, eight of the hospital's 10 operating theatres are lying empty with NHS hip replacements currently being carried out by a private operator in a Co Fermanagh hospital as part of a £1m contract.
Meanwhile, Belfast trust chief executive Dr Cathy Jack issued an email to staff on Tuesday evening saying they may have to redeploy staff to manage "exceptionally high staff absences" and deliver safe care.
Ms Devlin said: "As this pandemic continues, we are seriously concerned at the potential consequences of ongoing redeployment of nursing staff alongside high levels of vacancies. This will have serious consequences on the ability to carry out surgery and other procedures that impact waiting lists, and therefore patients.
"Just yesterday, our medical colleagues were raising the same concerns about the impact of nursing redeployment and vacancies on their ability to carry out surgery and how this is affecting the training of surgeons for the future.
"This lurching from crisis to crisis with no sense of a plan to get out of it must stop. Short-term decision making will have a long-term detrimental impact on the whole health service which will be felt for years to come."
In the months before the pandemic, the RCN took to the picket lines in unprecendented strike action over pay and "unsafe" staffing.
An agreement to introduce legislation to ensure safe levels of staffing helped bring an end to the strike. However, that legislation has yet to be implemented.
Ms Devlin added: “We have been raising our concerns for many years about deficits in the nursing workforce, virtually no workforce planning and total underinvestment which, on top of a pandemic, is having dire consequences.
"It is extremely disappointing that two years on from taking industrial action over the issue, we have hardly moved forward in relation to achieving much-needed safe staffing legislation. This is the only way to protect the nursing workforce in the future.
"Despite plenty of evidence, there appears to be a lack of learning from previous waves of the pandemic and nearly two years later we are in a worse position than ever. Our members are telling us, with so many staff absent, they are struggling to treat their patients safely. We need a clear plan of action, and we need it quickly."
Separately, a group of health service trade unions, including the RCN, gave a "guarded welcome" yesterday to a £25m pay award which will be distributed across lower paid sections of the workforce. This on top of the three per cent pay award for 2021/11.
The payment was announced by Health Minister Robin Swann.