Student nursing places in Northern Ireland are likely to be cut by the Department of Health, due to a lack of funding.
The department’s plan to slash three hundred places has sparked outrage from the Royal College of Nursing, which says the move will not only be damaging for long term health care delivery, but will also exasperate a workforce which it claims is ‘exhausted, demoralised and burnt out’.
The decision will see the number of places fall to 1,025 per academic year - and the RCN fears the long term impact could be irreparable.
“It doesn’t take anybody to have any kind of foresight to realise this is going to be an absolute disaster,” said Rita Devlin, director of RCN Northern Ireland.
“It’s short term-ism at its worst and in the long term it’s going to cause the taxpayer more more because whilst those nurses are not available, we still need the nursing vacancies filled.
"They’ll end up being filled with either agency nurses or overseas nurses. Our nurses, I believe, are being painted into a corner.
"They have to speak up and stand up, and the only way that we know to do that which makes anybody listen is to strike.”
The number of student nursing places was increased by three hundred per year in 2020 as part of the New Decade New Approach Deal.
The move to cut numbers has sparked fear for the future.
“This does challenge staff because our nursing students are the future workforce," said Mary McMenamin, a nurse working in Altnagelvin.
“Yet again it’s another challenge to the delivery of safe and effective care. It is demoralising, it is frustrating, and it pulls at the core of who we are as nurses.”
In a statement the Department of Health said it had taken the decision with “great regret.”
It said: “Like all departments, we find ourselves in the impossible position of having to fulfil conflicting responsibilities. These include living within the budget we have been given, acting in the public interest and safeguarding services. This is not a circle that we can square.
"Simply ignoring financial constraints is not a realistic option, and not just because it would be in breach of legal or professional responsibilities. Any overspend this year would simply mean even greater budgetary pressures next year.
"The Department fully understands the concerns being expressed about the decision to limit new nursing student places to 1025 this year.
"The 1,025 total was the funded baseline figure in place by 2020. It represented a significant increase on the average achieved over preceding years.
"It was increased in 2020 as the New Decade New Approach agreement pledged to deliver an extra 900 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over a three year period.
"This involved a further 300 per year on top of the 1025 baseline, rising to 1335 places. Those three years are now complete and no additional funding has been provided to maintain the extra 300 places this year.
"As well as maintaining the baseline 1025 total, the Department will look to expand nursing places in future if the funding permits.
"Further details on cost saving measures will be provided in the coming days, when a Departmental Equality Impact Assessment on the budget will be issued for public consultation.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.