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Health chiefs claim extra cash can't be found as NI nurses set for strike action

Striking nurses converge in Dublin earlier this year, and now similar action is planned in Northern Ireland
Striking nurses converge in Dublin earlier this year, and now similar action is planned in Northern Ireland
Lord Empey
Richard Pengelly

By Lisa Smyth

Health unions have rejected claims by the Department of Health that they cannot afford to pay nurses here the same as the rest of the UK.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has accused officials of underestimating the anger of nurses.

It called on the Department of Health's Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly to act to break the deadlock.

The relationship between health unions and the Department of Health is becoming increasingly strained after the RCN announced plans to begin industrial action for more pay and in a bid to ensure patient safety.

A spokeswoman from the Department of Health last night said: "The Department can confirm that discussions took place today with trade unions and we hope that there will be further engagement in the days ahead.

"The Department remains fully committed to ongoing dialogue with the unions and have had in the region of 20 meetings on Agenda for Change with union representatives in the last 12 months.

"Subject to further engagement with union colleagues next week, we hope to move towards tabling a formal pay offer very shortly."

However, Pat Cullen, the director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: "There has been no further progress in relation to a pay offer or the talks which we have been engaged in for several months.

"It seems to me that the Department of Health has still not grasped the level of anger amongst our members and the severity of the health and social care crisis in Northern Ireland."

She continued: "Our position on this is that, first of all, it isn't for the frontline nursing service to determine where the money comes from, the responsibility lies with the Permanent Secretary, who is the chief executive of the entire health and social care service.

"The annual health service budget is £5.6bn and the amount required to close the gap and bring the pay of nurses in Northern Ireland into line with England, Scotland and Wales is £103m.

"That is 0.018% of the total £5.6bn.

"We believe it is money well spent as it will provide safe care for the people of Northern Ireland, which is care that people deserve to prevent this crisis becoming critical.

"This small change would help to attract nurses to Northern Ireland and this would impact on waiting lists and on people being able to access surgery and treatments in a timely manner.

"All nurses in Northern Ireland are asking for is the same as the other UK countries.

"The health trusts paid £53m to agencies in 2018/19 and we believe the Department would be better served if they stop short term cost-cutting measures and start to take a long term and more realistic view of the health service.

"It is only the Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly, who can make that happen."

More than nine out of 10 RCN members who took part in the ballot voted in favour of strike action in protest over patient safety. The turnout was 43.3%.

In an unprecedented and highly significant development, 92% of the RCN members in Northern Ireland who took part have voted in favour of walk outs and 96% of members have voted for industrial action.

It is the first time in the 103-year history of the organisation that nurses have voted in favour of such drastic action in a bid to protect patients' lives and increase wages for hard-pressed nurses.

Yesterday Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey vowed to reintroduce his Private Members Bill at Westminster to restore health powers to Westminster, citing the nurses' strike threat.

He said it was evidence of how critical the situation is around Northern Ireland's health service.

"The Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health has given numerous warnings about the state of the service, yet no heed has been taken of these by Government," he said. "With Stormont still deadlocked, and unlikely to be sorted out before next year, all right-thinking people can see that urgent action has to be taken."

He added: "I have been in touch with the Public Bill Office at Westminster and have confirmed that I intend to reintroduce my Private Members Bill, The Department of Health (Northern Ireland) Bill, next month."

The bill would see the temporary appointment of a Minister to help alleviate the problems facing the health service and enable key decisions to be taken, including budget allocations and workforce planning.

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