Crisis-hit hospitals and GP centres across Northern Ireland are short by an astonishing 7,000 staff, former health minister Jim Wells has claimed.
And of those a total of 2,400 of vacancies in the provinces’ health service are nurses. Overall, that amounts to 14% of all of the nursing posts – effectively, one in seven nurses is absent.
The DUP ex-ministers’ claim arrives against the backdrop of the health workers’ strike over the failure to maintain pay parity with their counterparts in England and Scotland.
In the Sunday Life last week, Mr Wells broke his silence and admitted he had taken the decision to end parity rather than close wards or reduce medical supplies.
But following his admission, the South Down MLA said he wanted to address the wider issues facing the future of the health service here.
“Since 2015, there has been a very significant rise in the number of vacancies in the health service in Northern Ireland,” he said. “We are now 7,000 staff short, including 2,400 nursing vacancies.”
Mr Wells said that level of vacancies was one of three reasons for his statement to this newspaper that the job of Health Minister has gone from very difficult to “impossible”.
“Another reason is the demand for health services has been increasing by between 5% and 6% per annum since 2007 while the funding has risen by an average of just under 3%.
“So, at present the money is simply not there to adequately provide for all of the health needs of the Northern Ireland population.
“But even if we did have an adequate budget, we don’t have the trained staff to deliver the service.
“Hospitals are becoming more and more reliant on bank and agency staff to fill the gaps caused by staff shortages, but this is a very expensive option which is placing a huge strain on budgets.”
Mr Wells said the three main reviews of the health service over the last decade and more, most recently the so-called ‘Bengoa blueprint’, had made clear major structural changes are needed to deliver an effective service.
And he added: “Every elected representative agrees with their conclusions – as long as none of the services in their constituency are altered or reduced in any way.
“Health is a very emotive issue. People feel a great loyalty to their local service and have always resisted change.
“Even with adequate resourcing and staffing we have to convince the public that the service must be provided at a smaller number of sites with the full team of specialist staff.”
Mr Wells spoke for the first time last week as the industrial action by nurses and other staff escalated and an initial pay offer falling short of full parity was rejected.
“On all of this, on this occasion I am guilty as charged,” he said after his party leader Arlene Foster told BBC NI’s The View programme that Mr Wells had been in office when the decision was taken.
“We had to balance the books. In the 2015/16 budget we were in a situation where we did not have the money to keep increasing pay and so we decoupled from Scotland.”
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