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I acknowledge the commitment and professionalism of our nursing staff across Northern Ireland. They are, as I have said, true professionals. They are the people who make sure that patients are treated with care, compassion and dignity, whether in their home, in a community setting, in primary care, or in hospital, as is often the case.
It is a disgrace that we are now in a situation whereby more than 700 nursing posts are to be lost. Whether the UUP wants to blame the DUP, or the DUP wants to blame the UUP, this matter is so serious that it needs to be sorted out between the Health Minister and the Finance Minister, because they both have a responsibility from which they cannot escape.
Despite the fact that nurses are such a key group of workers, we know that when these proposals were taken forward by the trusts, there was very little real, meaningful and true consultation with the nurses on the ground. That has only added to the frustration that many of them currently feel.
The Western Health and Social Care Trust, as Claire McGill has mentioned, will lose more than 130 posts, and we have been told by the health authorities — at a number of different levels — that that will be taken care of through natural wastage. We are asked to believe that it will be all right. The reality is that I have had nurses come to me in recent months — well-trained, highly-qualified nurses, some of them at intensive-care level, and many of them young — who have had notification in writing that their contracts are coming to an end. They do not know what the future holds for them.
Instead of cutting nursing jobs, we should be challenged by the task of finding some alternative means of employing them, if it comes to that. I agree with the Chairperson of the Health Committee that there are areas of need. She referred to eating disorders, and I agree that the level of care for people with eating disorders across Northern Ireland is appalling.
With regard to mental health, the situation is perhaps slightly better, but there is a great deal of room for improvement.
If some of those nurses are now to leave our hospitals, there must be appropriate and well-resourced training so that they can move into other settings, because, at the end of the day, they are the people who will take the pressure off the Health Service ― the primary-care and secondary-care sectors in particular ― and will, with appropriate treatment, screen out many patients before they get to other levels. Therefore, we need more resources if the worst comes to the worst here with regard to working in hospitals.
We have arrived at this point because some Members voted for the Budget, which contained the comprehensive spending review measures; unfortunately, we are now living with the consequences. I notice that the Deputy Chairperson of the Health Committee described the efficiency savings as British-inspired. Yes, it is a Gordon Brown initiative and in that sense it is British-inspired, but it is here because that British-inspired initiative was voted through by Sinn Féin. Therefore it is time that we all look at the Budget afresh.