Nurses in Northern Ireland struggle to pay ‘unaffordable’ hospital car park charges

Our Health and Social Care staff in Northern Ireland have battled a global pandemic heroically over the last year. Many across the UK paid with their lives. Here in Northern Ireland, while most of the country sheltered at home and rode out the lockdown in safety, many of our health care workers were left out of pocket due to ‘utterly ridiculous’ car parking fees so they could go to work.

Hannah Buchannan, a 24-year-old nurse who works at the Belfast City Hospital, leaves her home an hour and a half early each day to attempt to find free street parking to avoid these charges.

All-day parking at the Belfast City Hospital presents the most expensive car parking fees in the Belfast Trust, with the Royal Victoria Hospital all-day fee being only £5. The Mater Hospital only costs £1 per day.

“There are two main car parks for staff at the Belfast city hospital;” she said. “One that’s predominantly for staff and one predominantly for visitors but you can go to either. They are £11 a day for a long day – they are just ridiculously priced.” Hannah cannot afford to pay the £11 fee for each day of work, so instead, she avoids the hospital car park and searches for roadside parking nearby.

As the Belfast City hospital is situated in the busy centre of Belfast, Hannah often struggles to find a parking spot. Hannah claims the process is ‘totally inconvenient’ and reports that she often must walk a mile and a half to work from the only available parking spots. Not only is parking in public areas unsafe for her vehicle, but it also presents a personal risk when she must walk to her car at night-time.

“One time I parked my car, and I came back, there was a note left on the windscreen from the police because somebody had pushed my car out to the road and tried to burn it,” she said.

Hannah’s car was fine, but she worries about leaving her car “somewhere that’s totally not safe.” She claims ‘it is just horrible’ having to walk roughly a mile and a half alone at night as a young girl and through unlit areas in Belfast.

However, some staff can avail of staff parking passes which reduce the price of the fees but only if you are eligible to receive the pass. Due to a large interest in the parking scheme for staff, many staff have been placed on a lengthy waiting list.

“I actually know people who have been on it for six years and I haven’t even applied to the car parks lists because there’s literally no point,” she said.

There have been numerous reports of staff being on the parking waiting list for three years and this is not an isolated incident. Hannah claims that most staff are more likely to have changed jobs before they qualify for the parking pass. With the parking passes exclusivity, many staff like Hannah in the Belfast City Hospital, are forced to take the risk of free street parking.

Hannah believes part of the waiting list issues is that there are former Belfast City hospital staff members who still hold a City parking pass.

“Everywhere is way more reasonably priced so I know there are a lot of staff that once worked at city hospital now work in one of the other hospitals,” she explains. This leads to many parking passes being used up by staff from other hospitals who do not desperately need the pass.

Hannah claims that a helpful solution would be an annual review of who holds Belfast City Hospital parking passes to ensure that only current staff are availing of the pass. She suggests that the ward manager should sign off on passes once a year to state that the pass is being used by a current staff member.

“I also think people like staff who do night shifts – or twilight shifts, should be given a pass to park at those times,” she said, “because it is absolutely not safe to be walking anywhere after 8 o’clock as a girl.”

Hannah suggests that night-time staff should qualify for a parking pass for staff safety. Not only are parking passes important to help reduce cost, but it would also allow staff to use on-site parking that is monitored and safer for the individual.

Interview with Hannah Buchannan, a Registered Nurse at Belfast City Hospital, about her experience trying to park at work.

Hannah is not the only nurse in the Belfast Trust to struggle with hospital car parking charges. It is an issue that not only affects staff but patients and their families. Long parking wait times due to a lack of parking spaces can lead to patients sometimes missing their appointments. 

The Patient Client Council UK released ‘Car Parking at Hospitals and other Health and Social Care Facilities – Views of Patients and Members of the Public’ in 2011, where patients saw an improvement in the Belfast City Hospital parking but that ‘the prices charged are too high.’ Most patients felt that they were being charged for being ill and charges often added additional stress to the patient.

According to the Belfast Trust website, patients and visitors should expect ‘a small parking charge’ which needs to be paid before returning to your car. Free car parking is available to patients who have specific acute conditions who need to be at the hospital regularly and this pass can be approved by the ward manager.

The Belfast Trust does offer a Hospital Travel Costs Scheme which is part of the NHS Low Income Scheme. This scheme is for patients with low incomes that may be refunded travel fares to the hospital for appointments, but the journey needs to meet a specified criterion. The Belfast Trust also addressed the ‘Belfast City Site Congestion’ issue due to long waits for parking spaces and offer that appointments can be rearranged as soon as possible if your appointment is missed.

Hospital parking charges existing at all for staff members and patients is a debated issue. Rita Devlin, the Acting Director of RCN Northern Ireland, believes that hospital parking should be free for all staff.

“Yes, it has been reported to us quite a lot that members were having difficulties getting parked but also the amount of money it is costing them trying to come to work every day,” Devlin explains that the union is aware of the ongoing parking issue for nurses not only in the Belfast Trust but across Northern Ireland.

“The RCN’s position is that staff who are coming to work should not have to pay for parking as we believe they work long and hard and it should be a facility that is open to them,” she said. “We do know that demand far, far exceeds the available supply of car parking so there aren’t any easy answers for staff, but we do believe it should be free.”

Interview with Rita Devlin, Acting Director of RCN Northern Ireland, about staff paying for parking in the Belfast Trust.

Across the UK, England and Northern Ireland hospitals still maintain car park charges whilst parking in Wales and Scotland are now considered free. However, free parking in Scotland has not solved the parking issue. Many patients reported to The Patients Association in Scotland that they often miss their appointments due to a lack of spaces or a need to park in public areas and walk to the hospital instead.

The British Parking Association has been working with the Department of Health and Social care to tackle hospital car park charges and space availability. According to The Department of Health and Social Care website, they are planning to offer free parking to disabled patients, frequent outpatient attenders, parents of sick children staying overnight and staff working night shifts. Trusts are expected to implement this policy by the end of April 2021, but it is not specified if staff working night shifts will be immediately given a parking pass or if they will be placed on another waiting list.

Roisin Lynch, a Senior Nursing Support working in Belfast City Hospital, does not believe parking should be free for all staff but that charges should be discounted as the prices are unaffordable.

“I get paid £10.90 an hour so, I have to work over an hour to pay for my parking,” she said. “Even if I work a half-day, which is six to seven hours for me, I still have to pay £11. I just think it’s unaffordable.”

Roisin pays £11 a day to avail of on-site parking and explains that staff are not guaranteed a spot, but that there is enough space. Roisin believes that the charges should be ‘heavily discounted’ for staff and that the price is ‘utterly ridiculous’ in comparison to the other hospitals in the Belfast Trust. She understands the need for car parking charges but personally finds the current price just too expensive.

Roisin Lynch speaks about her experience parking at the Belfast City Hospital.

Cillian McGinn, a Senior Communications Officer for the Belfast Trust, explains that staff car parking scheme criteria is currently changing.

“The Belfast Trust aims to provide parking spaces to staff using a car parking access criteria. This will allocate car parking spaces based on business need and the availability of public travel options,” he said. “The system is being introduced to prioritise parking for those staff who require a car to carry out duties across sites; or those staff who work shift patterns that are not supported by public transport.”

McGinn states that the Belfast Trust used to operate on a ‘first come first served’ approach to staff waiting for their parking pass. He explains that when demand for car parking exceeded the number of spaces available, the waiting lists were created for staff. McGinn confirmed that ‘a small number’ of staff have been on the list for over three years.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the introduction of the new parking arrangements,” he explained. “Since November 2020, in response to the Health Minister’s offer of free parking for all HSC staff, spaces in the public car parks have been temporarily allocated to staff on the waiting lists who work shifts. The Trust, in partnership with Translink, has been operating a free park and ride services for other staff from car parks on the Blacks Rd and the Springfield Rd.”

McGinn said in response to staff struggling with managing parking fees, that the Trust has started a travelling to work policy which gives guidance to staff on how to get work via public transport, walking and cycling. The Trust currently have a few schemes in place like the bicycle loan scheme to encourage staff to not drive to work. Currently travel on public transport is free for HSC staff.

The Belfast Telegraph found from a Freedom of Information request filed regarding Northern Ireland Trust car parking charges, that the Belfast Trust car park gathered over £3 million in charges from 2018 to 2019. The FOI also showed that staff paid £707,695 in fees in the Belfast Trust in the 2018/19.

The Belfast Trust made the most in fees over from 2016 to 2019 in Northern Ireland with £6,349,932 whilst the South Eastern Trust was second with £4,863,858.

From February 2020 to January 2021, the Belfast Trust total car park charge income was £1,458,213. Of that amount, £1,164,129 was from the visitor element:

  • Royal £901,347
  • BCH £223,926
  • Mater £38,856

The remaining £294,085 was gathered through staff car parking schemes. This does not show all staff payments over the pandemic as many staff in the Belfast Trust are not eligible for the staff parking scheme and pay at the kiosk like visitors.

This £294,085 was gathered over the last year, not including April to June 2020 when Health Minister Robin Swann reimbursed staff for this period. The 1st of November 2020 until March 2021, saw the second suspension of staff payments due to the pandemic. Therefore, this figure covers only half of this period.

Due to the global pandemic last year, any attempts of improving the car parking issue for nurses and staff was delayed. However, there are some promising signs from the Department of Health and Social Care regarding potential passes for staff working night shifts which would be a great help to people like Hannah Buchannan.

Hannah Buchannan has not heard of any more updates regarding the parking issue and continues to park in public areas.

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