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Health strikes to go on as unions say Julian Smith linking NHS funds to deal is 'cynical'

Nurses and health service workers pictured on strike outside the Belfast City Hospital in Belfast as ongoing industrial against continues across Northern Ireland regarding ongoing issues in the NHS.
Nurses and health service workers pictured on strike outside the Belfast City Hospital in Belfast as ongoing industrial against continues across Northern Ireland regarding ongoing issues in the NHS.
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

Health unions have vowed to continue strike action until their demands to ensure the future of the NHS are met.

While the political parties pored over the details of the draft agreement on Friday, thousands of NHS staff took to picket lines across Northern Ireland.

The New Decade, New Approach document contains a range of commitments for any new Executive to sign up to, including immediately settling the NHS pay dispute and the creation of 900 nursing and midwifery training places over three years.

The director of the Royal College of Nursing Pat Cullen welcomed the development but said the proposals do not go far enough to address staffing levels.

"Our members believe that in order to address the 2,800 vacant nursing posts, we need an additional 500 training places every year for the next five years," she said.

"However, we are willing to sit down with the new Health Minister as soon as they are in post, whether that is tonight or over the weekend, and indeed we will be seeking an urgent meeting with them to discuss the issues that nurses have in relation to this dispute."

Ms Cullen was speaking as nurses voiced their support for her after former MP Emma Little-Pengelly criticised the nursing chief for her behaviour on the picket line outside the Royal Victoria Hospital.

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The ex-DUP MP, wife of the Department of Health's permanent secretary, tweeted footage of Ms Cullen laughing and said: "Gosh, hardly a laughing matter."

However, her post received an angry response.

One nurse wrote: "Not only should nurses and the people of Northern Ireland endure the lack of safe staffing legislation alongside the lack of pay parity, but we should also not give a true leader the greeting she deserves on the picket line we have been forced to occupy to protect our patients?"

Healthcare workers protesting outside BelfastÕs City Hospital
Healthcare workers protesting outside BelfastÕs City Hospital

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary of Unison, which also staged strike action on Friday, also raised concerns that the Secretary of State has said additional cash to address the health service crisis will only be made available in the event of a deal at Stormont.

Describing Julian Smith's position as "a cynical abuse", Ms McKeown said: "To use the distress of the people in Northern Ireland to secure wider political aims is something we will robustly challenge."

The New Decade, New Approach document was made public late on Thursday night.

In addition to addressing the pay demands of unions and increasing nursing training numbers, it also calls on politicians to introduce a plan to address waiting lists.

Specifically, it says that no one who was on a waiting list at the end of last September for more than a year will still be waiting for their appointment by March next year.

It also calls for an overhaul of the way waiting times are measured, so that the whole patient journey is captured.

Under the draft deal, the new Health Minister would also be expected to press ahead with the recommendations made by the Bengoa Report, which would result in the rationalisation of services.

This would include changes to the way that stroke services are provided.

It also calls for strategies in relation to mental health, cancer and addiction services, and increased investment in end of life care.

The proposed medical school at the University of Ulster's Magee site would also go ahead.

People experiencing fertility problems have also received a boost, with the promise that the executive will provide three funded cycles of IVF treatment.

Currently, only one round is paid for by the NHS in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Dr Tom Black from the British Medical Association has welcomed the proposals in the document.

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