More than 600 nurses are to be recruited from the Philippines in an attempt to plug Northern Ireland’s chronic nursing shortage.
The region has a dearth of 1,500 nurses – 10% below capacity – with health chiefs warning of a difficult year ahead.
A lack of qualified nurses across the EU and concerns over Brexit have meant that bosses must now look overseas for staff to fill vacancies until enough local nurses can be trained up.
This is one of a number of measure being taken by the Department of Health to address the staffing shortage.
Chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle said the problem arose because the supply from undergraduate recruitment had not kept up with demand and an ageing workforce.
She added that the recruitment initiative was only intended as an interim measure “to get through the difficult years”.
“The answer for us is to grow our own workforce,” said Professor McArdle.
“We can’t be reliant on other places to do that for us.
The overseas programme is an interim step to help balance things while we get to the other side.”
There has been greater investment in nurse student places over the past two years with the Department of Health increasing pre-registration nursing student places by 38%, from 650 to 900 – an increase of 38%, she added. There are between eight and 10 applicants for every undergraduate place.
However, the first band of new nurses will not complete their university qualifications until 2019.
One option to help balance out the workforce was to recruit from other EU countries.
But Prof McArdle said Europe was in a similar position to the UK and Ireland in terms of nursing.
She said there was an assumption that many EU nurses were becoming worried about the impact of Brexit.
“The facts are there aren’t many (nurses) there (across the EU),” she said.
“We are aware that the number of nurses on the NMC (Nursing and Midwifery Council) register has declined quite significantly in the last year.
“They are telling us that the number of EU nurses are dropping off the register very quickly.
“I don’t think anyone has the answer (as to why), but I think there are a lot of assumptions around nurses becoming worried in light of Brexit. Certainly we would have to consider it.”
She said this was the reason a decision was taken to launch an overseas recruitment programme.
“Through that programme we are hoping to recruit 622 nurses, mainly from the Philippines, with some from India, by 2020,” she said.
“We have a history with the Philippines, and to a lesser extent India, from the last shortage around 2000.”
She warned that a difficult year lay ahead.
But she insisted there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”
“We are running with just under 10% vacancy levels. In the context of Northern Ireland we have probably in the region of between 15,000 and 17,000 posts and about 1,500 vacancies. That is in context of a workforce of 15,000,” she said.
“That is significant, but in the context of what is happening around us, it certainly isn’t as bad as what would be happening in England or the Republic of Ireland, and it is probably on a par with Scotland and Wales.
“This year is going to be difficult in terms of nurse recruitment but hopefully from then on we’ll start to see light at the end of the tunnel.
“We just need to get through this difficult stage.
“I fully recognise that staffing levels are a source of great concern to nurses.”
She added: I want to assure them – and the public – that the issue is being actively addressed on a number of important levels.” (By Belfast Telegraph)