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The House will consider little of more importance than the subject that is under discussion. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety would do well to listen. Trusts’ potential loss of 722 nursing posts will, if not reversed, mark a seismic mistake of ministerial folly.
Our National Health Service is world-renowned for its expertise. Many in the House, me included, can testify to its surgical and medical expertise. At the core of the service stands the distinguished profession of nursing, which is a vocation. Many of our nurses have distinguished themselves by the care that they give. They deserve to be treated fairly, and they deserve the respect that is due to them. We all know that many nurses — including my sister, who is a nurse in Lagan Valley Hospital — go above and beyond the call of duty in their commitment to their patients. I am at a loss to fathom how 722 nursing posts can be axed without a critical negative impact on front line services.
The Northern Ireland director of the highly respected Royal College of Nursing has already informed us that, if 722 posts are cut, patient care will be damaged and further strain will be placed on an already pressurised workforce. Proposals to cut the number of nursing-ward or team managers, to force them to work across multiple locations and to downgrade their roles are unacceptable threats to patient care and client safety. Those proposals must be revoked.
A report by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority suggests that the loss of the nursing posts will cause an increase in healthcare-acquired infections. The RQIA report contains powerful messages about how inadequate nurse staffing levels contributed to the spread of infections, yet the five trusts wish to add to that danger by doing away with 722 nursing positions.
That eloquent analysis places none of us in any doubt about what the motion is about: protecting front line services and enhancing, not damaging, patient care. Does the Minister think that he knows better than the Royal College of Nursing? Does he expect the House to believe that he knows better than the men and women who daily provide services in an increasingly pressurised workplace?
The Minister’s logic that one can cut 722 posts and not hinder front line services defies reality. I challenge him to go to hospitals, treatment rooms and homes in which district nursing services are being provided to witness for himself the pressures that nurses are under and to appreciate the fact that many nurses are regularly working unpaid overtime. The Health Service has many demands, but, frankly, the Minister’s cutting of 722 nursing posts will only add to the problems faced on the front line — it has no part to play in solving those problems.
I have asked the Minister to direct his attention towards areas that can contribute to the solution and increase productivity, and I make no apology for reiterating that. Every time they are mentioned, he seems to pooh-pooh them. I said that he must address the level of non-attendances at outpatient clinics, which stands at 196,000 — he has not done so. I said that he must address some of the 14,000 cancelled clinics — he has not done so. I said that he must address the alarming cost of medical negligence claims, which amount to £14 million — he has not done so. Furthermore, he must address the £6 million cost of independent sector providers, and whether it is really necessary to pay management consultant fees of more than £100 million. Consider the £40 million cost of employing agency staff: if one is getting rid of nurses, it does not make sense to re-employ them as agency staff at twice the price. Strategically, the Minister is in error in his belief that cutting 722 nursing positions will not detrimentally impact on front line services.