More than 500 NHS staff in Northern Ireland have left their jobs in the first seven months of 2021.
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly has called on the Health Minister Robin Swann and wider Executive to take action to stem the numbers of nurses leaving Health Trusts in their droves.
A total of 533 have through resignation, retirement, or new roles within the health service.
It is understood many have joined agencies and a total of 60 (five from ICU) nurses left the Southern Trust over that period.
Nursing union officials have said NHS staff are exhausted and over-stretched due to nursing shortages, which is having a direct impact on staff.
Mrs Kelly argued this “exodus” is also directly linked to some staff leaving for better paid opportunities with agencies, underscoring the urgent need for a meaningful pay uplift for health staff.
The Upper Bann MLA commented: “The resignation of so many nurses spells disaster for a health service already grappling with understaffing issues and increasing demand.
“The service was battling with these concerns pre-pandemic so this developing situation at such a critical juncture could be catastrophic.
“I understand these figures include temporary staff and some individuals retiring, many more reflect those leaving for more flexible and family-friendly employment options with agencies.
“Of course, no-one can begrudge staff availing of such opportunities, but it contributes to disharmony in an already extremely challenging workplace with 255 unfilled posts in the Southern Trust.”
Mrs Kelly said Trust staff needed assurances management will improve stability in their posts.
“The survival of many independent care homes is also being threatened and underlines even further the need for a change in policy with regards to use of agency staff,” she said.
“Otherwise, we run the risk of costs for families with loved ones in residential care increasing.”
Mrs Kelly said the agency bill to plug staff shortages last year soared to an “eye-watering” £245million.
Adding: “We must bear in mind this spend was up to March 2020 pre-COVID and the likelihood is that the figure for the last year is significantly higher. It is completely unacceptable and unsustainable.
“In the absence of a policy change, pretty soon we will be in the ludicrous position whereby the spend on agency workers is more than that of NHS staff. This also means less money being spent on the provision of essential health services for the wider population.”
Mrs Kelly said the issues raised highlighted “poor pay and work conditions right across the system for the best part of a decade.”
“It should be a siren call for the Health Minister and the Executive to take immediate steps to improve pay and work conditions as well as putting a recruitment framework in place to address staff shortages.
“The reality is, if they spent less on agency then they could afford to pay NHS staff better. Action now is vital to stem the bleeding out of the health service’s most vital resource; its staff.”