Defence Forces’ nursing service down from 100 to ‘just three or four’

Army barracks has employed agency nurse on 24-hour basis every day for last nine years

A review of the Army Nursing Service is due to be completed before the end of the year. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

A review of the Army Nursing Service is due to be completed before the end of the year. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The Defence Forces’ nursing service is so understaffed that in one barracks an agency nurse has been employed on a 24-hour basis every day for the past nine years, the Dáil has been told.

Former Army Ranger Wing commander-turned-Independent TD Cathal Berry also said nursing staff in the military had gone from, decades ago, 100 to just three or four and that was a “major pity” because during the pandemic “nurses would have been useful both within the Defence Forces and in dealing with the public”.

He added that “it would be unusual among the EU 27 (member states) for a military not to have an army nursing service”.

Dr Berry, a medical doctor, said: “Thankfully, we have not had a casualty overseas in 16 or 17 years, but we are on borrowed time. If we recruit nurses, we should be able to deploy them overseas like any normal military does.”

Warning that “we must de-risk our overseas operations”, Dr Berry said “we must prevent our next casualty from becoming our next fatality.

“Having a functioning, well-resourced and well-staffed Army Nursing Service is crucial in that regard,” he said during Dáil Defence question time.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney insisted however that in overseas deployments “we always ensure that there are appropriate medical supports, medical facilities and nursing staff available to our serving personnel”.

That usually means embedding personnel with military from other countries. “In Mali, we are embedded with the Germans,” he said adding that when he visited the EU training mission the German medical facility there had responsibility for looking after the medical requirements of Irish serving personnel.

The Minister said that a review of the Army Nursing Service, begun in March 2020 but delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, will be completed before the end of the year.

He said that “medical expertise and medical staff, including nursing staff, are an important component of a rounded and functioning defence forces.

“I hope that is what we can deliver following the review.”

Mr Coveney acknowledged that the service is important. “In fact, it is an essential service that is provided to our Permanent Defence Force.”

He said the civil-military joint standing committee on medical service is reviewing each key medical capability separately to evaluate and make recommendations on “the most appropriate means of delivering each service to the Defence Forces”.

Pointing out that the majority of the nurses employed by the Defence Forces are agency nurses, Dr Berry said this was an expensive practice and the employment of an agency nurse on a 24-hour basis every day since 2012 “is a suboptimal situation from her perspective as well as the organisation’s perspective”.

The Minister told him he would follow the progress of review closely and added that the Army Nursing Service “is essential to our Defence Forces and needs to be available to all serving personnel”.

A commitment was made in the programme for Government that the medical facilities available to officers in the Defence Forces should be available to all serving personnel. “That commitment will take some time to implement, but I am determined to do that,” he said.