Nurses from as far afield as the Philippines are being flown in to fill empty posts in Northern Ireland, Sunday Life can reveal.
he Department of Health (DoH) is paying employment agencies in England for much-needed temporary staff and reimbursing the cost of their food and accommodation.
In one instance a nurse from the Philippines who was working in the Middle East was flown to Northern Ireland after being hired by an agency.
The medic was housed in private lodgings while they helped boost the over-stretched resources of the health service, which is buckling under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the latest DoH figures available, there are 5,234 vacant positions in the local health and social care sector.
The figure has fallen from a three-year high recorded in June last year of 7,436 unfilled posts.
Of the latest empty posts, 2,309 are in the nursing category, including midwives and paediatric and district nurses.
At the time of going to press, there were 57 nursing and midwifery jobs advertised across Northern Ireland’s five health trusts, ranging in salary from a £19,000 Band 3 nurse to £38,000 Band 5 staff.
A DoH spokesperson told Sunday Life that foreign healthcare professionals were sometimes brought in for roles that are difficult to fill with local workers, with 320 overseas nurses to be recruited by March next year.
“Trusts employ agency and locum staff for several reasons. For example, cover for sickness, for staff who are self-isolating and maternity/paternity leave, cover for existing vacancies and, more recently, to cover the increased demand on services due to Covid-19,” they added.
“Non-contracted agency staff are only utilised in circumstances where all other options have been exhausted.
“The department is currently examining options for the reduction in non-contracted agency expenditure.
“Over the last three years, up to the point when a temporary suspension was imposed due to Covid-19, Health and Social Care Northern Ireland had 504 international nurse arrivals, against a target of 622 by March 2020, with 458 nurses currently still in post.
“The suspension on international recruitment was lifted at the start of September 2020 and the first eight overseas nurses were welcomed less than two weeks later.”
The spokesperson added that the DoH had significantly increased the number of trainee nurses and midwifery commissions from local universities.
The DoH previously admitted the cost of agency staff plugging gaps in hospital rotas was unsustainable, having hit a high of more than £200m in 2018/19.
This time last year, the cost of hiring temporary staff was running at £640,000 per day for all health trusts in Northern Ireland.
According to the latest figures available, the predicted bill for temporary staff in 2019/2020 is £232m.
That figure is likely to be surpassed because of the unprecedented pressure placed upon the health service by the coronavirus pandemic.