Without a fair pay deal, Northern Ireland will continue to haemorrhage nursing staff and patient safety will be further compromised
In February, nursing staff in Northern Ireland received a small pay increase for 2018-2019, but salaries continue to lag significantly behind the rest of the UK.
A newly registered nurse earns £1,419 less each year than in England and Wales, and £1,875 less than in Scotland. This is a major contributing factor to the number of vacancies in the country, which in turn has an impact on patient care.
And it is getting worse. Recent figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland showed an increase in nurse vacancies within the Health and Social Care service [HSC] over the last year of more than 20%. There were 2,161 unfilled registered nurse posts in March 2019, up from 1,784 in March 2018. The number of midwife and nursing support worker vacancies has also risen. The total nursing vacancy rate within the HSC is around 12%.
Some staff are leaving to work in other countries where they can gain a higher salary, while others are leaving the profession entirely due to the demands and pressures of working in an environment with too few staff.
In response to this, the RCN is preparing to ballot members on industrial action, including strike action, in what is a historic decision for the organisation and its members.
Nursing staff are going home in tears, not because of what they’ve done, but because of what they’ve not been able to do
“No one really wants to strike and it’s not something that any nurse would do lightly,” says RCN Council Member for Northern Ireland Ann Marie O’Neill.
“But things have gone too far and people simply can’t keep working like this. Nursing staff have been undervalued for too long and now we’ve reached crisis point.
“Being awarded fair pay is just the first step towards building a better health service in Northern Ireland, one where safe and effective staffing can really be achieved.”
We’re ready to take the next steps to ensure nursing staff in Northern Ireland are treated equally and fairly
The RCN is its members, and any strike action would need the full weight of membership support behind it.
Fiona Devlin, Chair of the RCN Northern Ireland Board, says: “It was a sad day when we decided to ballot for industrial action inclusive of strike, however we now believe we have been left with little alternative. We must see change. If we don’t do something as a nursing profession, we’re going to let patients down and we’ll ultimately end up in a worse situation.
“Members need to own this decision though. We have a huge task ahead of us. We’re ready to take the next steps to ensure nursing staff in Northern Ireland are treated equally and fairly, and we can do this with the membership behind us.”
A safe staffing framework
The RCN has been involved in the development of Delivering Care: Nurse Staffing Levels in Northern Ireland, a policy framework for safe nurse staffing created in 2014.
The framework identifies what the profession believes are the correct number of nurses required to deliver safe care across nine clinical settings.
To date, only phase one (acute medicine and surgery) has been funded and implemented by the Department of Health. Work on phases two to eight is ongoing.
The identification of safe staffing ranges within this framework has further highlighted the significant issues with the supply and retention of nurses within Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care service.