Your web browser is outdated and may be insecure

The RCN recommends using an updated browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome

Northern Ireland fair pay and safe staffing campaign

There is a severe shortage of nursing staff in Northern Ireland, as the latest (31 March 2024) figures from the Department of Health illustrate, with 1,534 nursing vacancies in the HSC and a similar vacancy rate estimated in the independent or nursing home sector.

We also have a significant over-reliance on the supply of nurses on an ad hoc basis through the nurse bank and nursing agencies. There are alarmingly high sickness absence rates amongst nursing staff that are largely attributable to stress and mental ill health. The RCN has been highlighting the need to promote safe and effective care through safe nurse staffing for many years. Mortality rates increase by up to 46% in hospitals with a 1:8 nurse-patient ratio compared with a 1:4 nurse-patient ratio. Every patient added to a nurse’s workload is associated with a 7% increase in deaths after general surgery. Higher patient satisfaction is recorded in hospitals with fewer patient per nurse workload and good nursing work environments. However, we need to invest in safe staffing across all areas of nursing practice.

An RCN survey has shown that 83% of nursing staff in Northern Ireland said that the actual number of nursing staff on their last shift was not sufficient to meet patients’ needs safely and effectively. Only 17% of nursing staff agreed that they had enough time to provide the level of care they would like, whilst just over one-quarter (28%) said that they were able to provide the quality of care that they themselves would want to receive as a patient. Some 56% (the highest percentage across the UK) said that too much time was taken up on non-nursing duties. The survey also found that almost two-thirds (60%) of nursing staff were unable to take the breaks they were supposed to take during their last shift. A similar proportion (64%) worked additional hours on their last shift, of which 82% did so unpaid.

In order to promote safe nurse staffing, we need proper workforce planning that is based on health care needs, tackling inequalities and strategic priorities, not financial considerations. Politicians and policy makers must start to view nursing as an asset to be supported and developed, rather than as a cost to be suppressed and controlled. There is an urgent need, now that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been restored, to prioritise the safe staffing legislation that was promised by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2020. We need to implement the recommendations of a recent Department of Health report on promoting the retention of the nursing workforce. There is no point in recruiting additional nursing staff if we continue to lose them because of staffing pressures, low pay and unacceptable working conditions. Finally, we need to make sure that health and social care transformation is finally delivered and this requires appropriate investment in specialist community nurses such as district nurses, school nurses, and health visitors to deliver these transformed services.

The RCN in Northern Ireland remains fully committed to securing safe nurse staffing and our priority within this continues to be to hold the Department of Health and the Northern Ireland Executive to account for the delivery of the measures needed to provide the level and quality of health care that our members want to deliver and which the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect.

Organising for Change

Have you considered joining in our Organising for Change training and development programme? Find out more about how this new model can help you influence for change in your workplace. 

Industrial Action Handbook

The handbook covers industrial action from start to finish, outlining how it begins to how it is resolved.

RCN Strike Hub

Visit our strike hub for the latest updates on strike action across the UK.

Members' stories

Share your story on Sensemaker.


Keep up to date with all the latest news from the RCN in Northern Ireland.

Page last updated - 22/05/2024