Northern Ireland's health workers are set to receive a £500 special recognition payment, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.
Subject to Department of Finance approval, the payment will be made to all health and social care workers including doctors, nurses, care home workers, domiciliary care workers, administrative staff and estates teams.
Mr Swann also announced a flat rate, one-off special recognition payment of £2,000 for all qualifying students who have been on clinical placement between October 1 2020 to March 31 this year.
The qualifying courses are nursing and midwifery, allied health professional, social work and physician associate pre-registration programmes commissioned from Queen's University, Belfast and the Ulster University by Stormont's health department. A one-off award is also set to be made to carers, but Mr Swann said more work is to be done on this before further detail can be announced.
It follows calls from some political parties and health unions for staff to be recognised for their efforts. A similar payment has already been announced in Scotland.
Speaking at a press briefing at Stormont yesterday, Mr Swann said simply thanking health workers for their work during the pandemic through Clap for Carers is not enough.
He asked his officials to work on plans for a "one-off, pro-rata payment" for all health and social care workers.
"There are no words to properly convey what they have done for us - we will never be able to repay that debt," he said.
"Last spring we stood on our doorsteps every Thursday evening and clapped for our heroes. And whilst it was a thoughtful display of support, I think we all knew that is was never enough and that they deserved more than just our thanks and well wishes."
Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew welcomed the payment going to those who have been "at the heart" of looking after people and saving lives, but called on the minister to support nursing students by increasing the nursing bursary and giving final year placement students the opportunity to get paid. SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said he is delighted Mr Swann has taken up his proposal to award the payment, adding: "I know this will be a huge morale boost to our incredible health workers.
"I raised the idea of a one-off extraordinary payment at the health committee and in the Assembly and it is fantastic it has come to fruition.
"While this is not everything our amazing staff deserve, it is a small but significant token of our deep appreciation."
DUP health spokesperson Pam Cameron said she looks forward to the payment progressing and said she awaits details on a similar payment for carers.
Health trade unions in Northern Ireland said they wished to acknowledge the role staff play to ensure the best possible care is received during the pandemic.
"We also note the Minister's commitment that this proposed payment will have no bearing on any pay deal for Agenda for Change (AfC) staff," said a statement from four joint trade union leads.
"Trade Unions caution that any such payments made to workers can impact detrimentally on workers entitlement to universal credits, family tax credits and any pension tiering. We note the Minister has taken steps to try to mitigate against any financial detriment," they said.
The health service in Northern Ireland is likely to face a barrage of legal cases from patients who have been denied treatment due to the pandemic, as it can be revealed that 611 cancer operations have been cancelled in just two weeks.