It is disappointing that a ballot has been announced. Health service staffing vacancies are an issue across these islands, and industrial action will do nothing to resolve workforce challenges and can only penalise patients at a particularly difficult and uncertain time.
While there is no doubt that nurses and other HSC staff are under increasing pressure, this is because they are working in a health system that is widely recognised as outdated and in urgent need for reform. In too many cases, services are currently spread too thinly, meaning staffing teams are too small and constantly over-stretched. The Department is committed to radical reform through the transformation agenda. That is the long-term answer to many of the workplace pressures facing nurses and other colleagues, and work on this is progressing well.
Alongside transformation, the Department is committed to sustained investment in growing the local nursing and midwifery workforce to help meet rising demand for care. Registered nursing and midwifery staff numbers in NI have risen by 4.7% from 5 years ago and by 10.1% from 10 years ago. The number of student nursing and midwifery places has increased year-on-year, to an all-time high this year of 1,025 places, and we are also recruiting nurses from overseas, to help fill existing vacancies.
The RCN believes nursing vacancies are at crisis level in England - that would suggest that English pay levels do not provide a solution to the issue. Furthermore, full parity with England would mean the cessation of bursaries for NI student nurses. To be clear, the Department has no plans for this, but simply highlights it to emphasise that a complex issue can easily be oversimplified. In any event, restoration of pay parity is clearly a matter for Ministers, and thus officials have no power to address this issue.
In terms of pay for 2019/20, and despite serious budgetary pressures, we remain committed to finding a way forward in the ongoing talks. However, and as we keep saying, we cannot spend money we do not have.
Notes to editors:
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