Department declines to say who is responsible for ‘dangerous’ gap

The RCN is continuing to draw attention to what it sees as a crisis in the number of trained nurses. Peter Byrne/PA Wire
The RCN is continuing to draw attention to what it sees as a crisis in the number of trained nurses. Peter Byrne/PA Wire

The Department of Health has declined to say who is responsible for organising nurse staffing, after a union said the absence of a workforce plan is “dangerous”.

The development comes after A&E departments across Northern Ireland came under sustained pressure over the holidays. From Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day almost 1,000 people had to wait longer than 12 hours to be treated in Northern Ireland A&E departments.

Yesterday the Deputy Chief Executive of the Health and Social Care Board, Michael Bloomfield, addressed public concerns on BBC Radio Good Morning Ulster.

Responding to the story of 86-year-old William Houston, who waited for 26 hours to be admitted to hospital, Mr Bloomfield said his treatment was “unacceptable” adding: “I do apologise to people who have had that sort of experience over the last week or so.”

He acknowledged that many of those worst affected will have been elderly, but insisted that the most ill patients will have been prioritised.

Planning had begun in the summer and seen an extra £7m made available before Christmas to cope, he said.

But the influx of flu arrived earlier than expected and there had been 4% more A&E patients in general this year, making it “very difficult for trusts to cover some peaks in activity”.

When pressed that the British Medical Association found 50-60% of out of hours GP shifts were not covered over Christmas, he responded that 85% of out of hours GP rotas had been covered.

And when asked if the system was safe, he replied: “I continue to seek assurance when I speak to trusts, which I have been doing right throughout the holiday period.”

When pressed on who is in charge, he replied: “Everybody is in charge to varying degrees of their areas” adding that “the department is ultimately responsible”.

Speaking to the News Letter, Royal College of Nursing Janice Smyth said that she saw no change in the situation 24 hours after the crisis dominated Northern Ireland headlines. Ten per cent of required nursing positions are vacant and nurses are leaving the profession much faster than they are being added, she said.

On Wednesday she said the problems are “heading only in one direction and in the absence of a workforce plan this is highly dangerous”.

But nobody from the Department of Health had yet spoken publicly about the crisis this week, she noted yesterday: “So I suppose as yet we have not yet heard from those people about the pressures that staff are under trying to deliver those services.”

The department said it is taking a range of steps;- increased investment in undergraduate nurse training; international and regional recruitment initiatives; encouraging former nurses to return to practise; an investment of £12m which has increased staffing in wards - and that it is developing a ‘Workforce Strategy’.

Ms Smyth responded that she was aware of all such measures, but added: “We need more money to train more nurses and nurses in advances and specialised roles. It is going to take some time before staffing levels even reach a steady state.”

The Department confirmed it is responsible for workforce planning. However it declined to tell the News Letter who is currently managing the issue in the absence of a minister.

• See Morning View, p20