Patients caught up in the Unison strike action could now wait weeks to be seen — and the union has warned more walkouts could be on the cards.
Health Minister Edwin Poots said it could take a lengthy period to clear the backlog of 2,400 medical procedures and appointments postponed as a result of the 24-hour strike action.
Patricia McKeown, regional secretary of the public service union — which represents healthcare and education workers including nurses, physiotherapists and cleaners — said thousands of members took part in the strike.
There were no official figures last night on the number of health service employees who took part in the action, although it has emerged some Unison members left the picket line to administer first aid to a person injured in a road accident near Craigavon Area Hospital.
The industrial action comes as the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said a bid is being prepared for additional funding in the upcoming monitoring round.
Unison has come under fire for holding the strike as less than 4,000 members out of around 26,000 voted to stage the walkout.
First Minister Peter Robinson branded the action futile.
He said: “This is not going to make one bit of difference.”
Deputy chair of the Stormont health committee Jim Wells, also a DUP MLA, said: “A ballot where only 18% of people participated does not signify that there is any real appetite for this action even amongst Unison members. This does not represent a mandate.”
However, Ms McKeown hit back at the criticism.
“Only 7,329 people out of a possible 35,859 voted for Mr Poots at the last election, so where is his mandate?” she asked.
“We are dealing with a minister who is only going to be in his post for two years.
“These are very hardline decisions he is taking about something he will walk away from in 18 months and another person will be left to pick up the pieces.”
Ms McKeown said the strike action has come as a last resort.
“This is first time I am aware of theatre nurses going on strike,” she said. “No-one takes this decision lightly. I welcome the fact the department is going to be looking for money. We would need to see more details on the bid and we can’t rule out further action.”
The number of appointments and procedures postponed as a result of the strike is a fraction of the number of people waiting more than five months for a first hospital appointment. Most recent Government figures show that in June there were 15,561 people waiting more than 21 weeks for a first outpatient appointment. Hospital waiting times have grown steadily in recent years, with health service employees blaming mismanagement and chronic underfunding of the NHS in Northern Ireland.