Department of Health figures state that there are almost 2,700 vacant nursing posts in the health and social care service, with around 1 in 10 nursing posts unfilled. This only tells part of the story. Many posts are not being recruited to. Staffing shortages also affect nursing homes. RCN members in all practice settings tell us time and again about the negative impact that current staffing levels have on patients and their own well-being. Long-term solutions to workforce shortages are needed to deliver the right numbers of nursing staff with the right skills in the right place.
One of the consequences is that expenditure on agency staff to fill gaps in the nursing workforce has effectively doubled over the last two years, from around £52 million in 2018-2019 to just over £110 million in 2020-2021. This is not only financially unsustainable but also has implications for nursing teams and continuity of care.
A nursing workforce retention strategy has been initiated but its findings about why nurses are leaving makes grim reading. The strategy needs to be prioritised if we are to stop losing valuable nursing staff. The Department of Health has also started work on legislation to ensure safe staffing across the health and social care service but this has not so far been given the priority it should have received. Finally, Northern Ireland urgently needs a comprehensive workforce plan that tells us how many nurses, and what types of nurses, we will require to tackle health inequalities and meet the needs of patients in hospitals, communities and nursing homes over the next five years.