Local nurses have said they are afraid of making mistakes because wards in Altnagelvin Hospital are understaffed.
The nurses raised their fears at a public meeting in the Guildhall organised by the Royal College of Nursing to discuss safe staffing and the nurses pay ‘crisis’.
If the situation is not resolved the RCN may have to take the ‘unprecedented’ step of balloting their members for industrial action.
The meeting was addressed by the Deputy Director of RCN Northern Ireland, Garrett Martin, Fiona Devlin, chair of the RCN Northern Ireland Board and local RCN board member Andrew Doherty.
The meeting was attended by nurses employed by the Western Trust in wards and community settings, trainee nurses, members of the public and a number of elected representatives.
During the meeting it was revealed that nurses in the north are the lowest paid across the UK and that there are over 2,500 unfilled vacancies across the North.
Andrew Doherty, who is an RCN board member and is a local nurse, gave an indication of the unfilled roles in the Western Trust.
He said the most recent figures show there were 89 unfilled vacancies in acute nursing and other vacancies across community, mental health and senior roles.
Mr Doherty claimed that last week acute respiratory in Altnagelvin Hospital had to close 10 beds and earlier this week there were just three nurses on the acute medical ward. “Nurses may not have time to deliver basic care needs to their patients; medicines may be delayed and procedures may not be done because there are not enough nurses on the wards. Staff are constantly working in an environment where they are so stretched breaks are missed and they constantly worry they are letting their patients down. “There is a constant fear of making mistakes and nurses are being consistently exposed to that risk due to staffing levels.”
Nurses in the audience agreed that they are afraid they will make a mistake ‘everyday, every shift’.
One nurse said that closed beds due to nurse shortages are putting extra pressures on staff who work in emergency care, where there is a huge increase in patients attending.
“Around a decade ago there were between 130 and 150 patients each day. Last week we had 260 patients in one day. People there more than 12 hours and it is really difficult to give them the care that they need.
“We don’t do it for money, we do it because we love nursing but we want to be paid the same as everyone else.”
A number of the nurses raised concerns about the use of agency staff, as the Western Trust spent over £3.5 million on agency nursing in 2017-2018. This would pay for 157 newly qualified registered nurses.
One of them said: “All out strike action is needed. I know a lot of people say it’s not about money but tell that to the mortgage man and to all those nurses who are going to food banks. Saying nursing is a vocation is an excuse to justify low wages.
Another nurse described his experience of working within the Trust as ‘impossible’. “There were three nurses to look after 30 seriously ill patients. If you go into any chip shop there are five people behind the counter.”
The nurse left the Trust and now works in the community, however, said ‘nothing has changed.’ The nurse now does three shifts a week and tops up income by working in the hospitality sector.