The RCN manifesto sets out three nursing priorities for the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
A recent survey of RCN members confirms that safe staffing is the top priority for nurses in Northern Ireland. The RCN estimates that there are currently around 2000 unfilled nursing posts in Northern Ireland. These vacancies exist across our hospitals, community health services, in home care services, as well as in our nursing homes.
Patients and nurses deserve safe staffing
Staffing shortages have created unacceptable pressures on nurses, with almost 40% having suffered work-related stress over the last year. Even more importantly, nursing shortages affect patient care because there are often not enough nurses to provide the safe care that patients are entitled to expect and that nurses want to deliver. This is the result of short-sighted cost-saving measures imposed by the Northern Ireland Executive. In many cases, vacant posts are covered by bank and agency staff who may not have the full range of skills required by the particular patients they are sent to care for.
Well over half of all nurses in Northern Ireland say that there are too few staff in their own workplace and that they feel overwhelmed as a result. The Department of Health has pledged to train more nurses in Northern Ireland. This is welcome, but these nurses will not join the workforce for at least another three years, even if they choose to stay in Northern Ireland.
The RCN is calling on our political parties to support a review of health and social care services that will establish clear principles about safe staffing and ensure that we never return to the current position in which there are simply not enough nurses to care for patients. Politicians also need to ensure that the outcomes of the work being led by the Department of Health on safe nurse staffing are fully funded by the Northern Ireland Executive and extended across all areas of patient care.
Fair pay for Northern Ireland nursesThe second priority for nurses in Northern Ireland is fair pay. The value of nurses’ pay has fallen by 14% across the UK since 2010. As well as this, nurses in Northern Ireland are treated unequally compared with nurses in the rest of the UK, an inequality recognised by the independent NHS Pay Review Body.
During the current year, for example, a newly-qualified staff nurse in Northern Ireland is paid each year £214 less than the same nurse in England and £340 less than in Scotland. An experienced staff nurse in Northern Ireland is paid £279 less than in England and £561 less than in Scotland. A typical health care assistant in Northern Ireland is paid £375 less than in England and £678 less than in Scotland. A specialist nurse in Northern Ireland is paid £409 less than in England and £823 less than in Scotland.
The RCN believes that all political parties must commit to closing the pay gap if we are to recruit and retain the nursing workforce that is needed to provide safe and high quality care for the people of Northern Ireland.
Reform and modernise our health and social care services
We now have a vision and principles for important changes to health and social care services in Northern Ireland, published last autumn by the Department of Health. Regardless of the outcome of the Assembly elections, politicians of all parties must ensure as a priority that we get on with implementation. Our health and social care services are in crisis; patients and staff deserve much better.
The RCN believes that it would send a positive message if all political parties would commit to taking the post of Health Minister if they are in a position to do so after the election. Political parties must also continue the partnership approach that was put in place by the current Health Minister last year to ensure that we all work together to build a better health and social care service for the people of Northern Ireland.