Thousands of people across Northern Ireland — among them some of the most vulnerable and ill — are being hit by the first day-long strike of health and care workers in 30 years.
Trade union Unison was last night under fire for calling the mass walkout on the basis of a ballot in which less than a fifth of its members took part.
The union, however, insisted low participation rates in votes are common and argued that of the 18% who returned ballots, more than 80% were in favour of today’s strike.
In the health service, more than 1,000 minor operations have been cancelled as a 24-hour barrage of picket line protests swung into action.
Around a thousand day procedures have been called off, out-patient clinics will be closed and it was made clear a range of other services will not be available at hospitals across Northern Ireland.
Social services will also be hit, with thousands of people unable to get to day centres and other facilities as a result of the stoppage.
Schools may also be disrupted, and there could be closures — although none had been notified yesterday — with kitchen and other ancillary staff absent.
But the main impact will be on the health service. Ambulances will provide emergency cover, but day case transport has been axed.
Unison says in some areas home care workers are taking strike action for the first time ever, but residential homes for older people and children’s homes will operate as part of its agreement with health trust managements to provide “critical” cover.
The stoppage from midnight is in protest at the 3% per annum cuts imposed on the health service as part of comprehensive spending rounds over the last four years — and against further cuts looming as part of the Stormont Executive’s four-year Budget.
Health Minister Edwin Poots questioned the legitimacy of the action based on less than 20% of Unison members.
“It is not good enough that children, who are vulnerable children, will not be able to go to their schools tomorrow and I would encourage the unions to draw back from the brink, even at this point,” he said.
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown hit back: “Nobody wants to lose pay and stand on picket lines but... Unison members are rejecting the cuts, the threats to the schools meals service, the 25% cut in the general schools’ budget.
“The workers are facing some of the worst cuts in their history.”
Hundreds of nurses, porters, domestics, catering staff, clerical and security workers are on strike today. The first health service picket line formed at the Mater Hospital at midnight as the action began. It was being followed by pickets at every hospital across the province. Large numbers of elective operations and out-patient clinic appointments have already been cancelled. Services could also be disrupted at schools.