Support nurses’ fight for safe and effective care in Northern Ireland…

If you have been stuck in traffic behind a bus somewhere in Northern Ireland this week, you may well have spotted an advertising campaign referencing Northern Ireland’s thousands of missing nurses.

This relates to today’s launch, for the first time in its 103-year history, of a Royal College of Nursing [RCN] ballot of members in Northern Ireland on taking industrial action, including strike action, over the nurse staffing crisis in the Health and Social Care service.

Nurses have been warning of the impact of staffing shortages and pay inequality for many years. They have taken the evidence to successive Health Ministers, to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the issues have been highlighted exhaustively in the media. But nobody in the corridors of power is listening, it would appear.

The number of unfilled nursing posts in Northern Ireland has doubled over the last couple of years and now stands at around 3,000 in the Health and Social Care service alone, with about the same number estimated in nursing homes. Meanwhile, the Department spends around £50 million per year on agency nurses to fill the gaps in the workforce. This is a ridiculous waste of public money.

Nurses’ pay in Northern Ireland continues to fall further and further behind the rest of the UK. For example, a newly-qualified registered nurse in Northern Ireland currently earns £1,875 less than a counterpart in Scotland and £1,419 less than in England and Wales. For a specialist nurse, the equivalent shortfall is £4,677.

Nurses realise that the staffing crisis has been many years in the making and that there are no quick fixes. They see the evidence every day in spiralling waiting lists and patients unable to access the services and level of care that they should be entitled to receive. They also experience the negative impact of the crisis on their own health and well-being as they work unpaid additional hours to try to patch things up as best they can. The Department of Health’s own figures show that over half of all nurses in the HSC have suffered work-related ill-health over the last twelve months. That is shocking.

We need to ensure that we can recruit and retain the nurses we need by paying them fairly. To put it in simple terms, why would a nurse from overseas who wants to work in the UK come to Northern Ireland when they can earn up to £2,000 per year more in Scotland, for example? A newly-qualified nurse in Northern Ireland, perhaps with no family ties, is going to look seriously at the prospect of earning significantly more money elsewhere in the UK or the Republic of Ireland and conclude that they would be better off leaving Northern Ireland. Nurses are voting with their feet.

The Department of Health will point out that the HSC nursing workforce in Northern Ireland has grown by around 10% over the last decade. This is correct. However, the Department’s own estimates show that demand for health and social care increases by 5%-6% annually. Equally, the staffing increase is not reflected in all areas of practice. The number of learning disability nurses in Northern Ireland has fallen by 22% since 2011, for example. Any growth in the workforce is therefore not remotely keeping pace with demand.

If nurses don’t take action now, the risks to patient safety will continue to escalate, far beyond what we are seeing at the moment. That is why we have to act. This is not a decision that was taken lightly. No nurse wants to take industrial action; all they want to do is to be able to care for patients properly and be paid fairly for doing so. But they feel they now have no choice.

If you support what we are doing to defend the Health and Social Care service, please sign our petition at to demand safe staffing and pay equality for nurses in Northern Ireland.

Pat Cullen, Director, RCN Northern Ireland

Photo by DarkoStojanovic is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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