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Northern Ireland health crisis: Nurses want action not words from politicians

Laura McClintock who was one of the nurses on strike at Altnagelvin Hospital
Laura McClintock who was one of the nurses on strike at Altnagelvin Hospital

By John Breslin and Donna Deeney

Thousands of nurses took to picket lines across Northern Ireland for a second day of strike action which once again disrupted health services, bringing some to a standstill.

The health service staff who braved the cold outside Belfast City Hospital on Wednesday told the Belfast Telegraph of their deepening frustration at what they describe as the failure of politicians to make any effective move to address their demands for parity of pay.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members also insisted that local politicians should stop simply spouting words of support that make no difference to the lives of staff and their patients.

Iona McCormack, a nurse at the hospital for 39 years, said she is motivated by the lack of movement since they first went out on strike last December.

"Nothing has been addressed and while the politicians are saying they are backing us, nothing has actually been offered that gives us parity of pay... why should we earn less, it is straightforward," she said.

"We are out here not getting paid today, yet they (the politicians) have not been sitting and they have been getting paid. And we are doing this for the future of nursing and the patients."

Ms McCormack described the support that the nurses received on Wednesday as "brilliant" and said the public is "right behind us", which she added was as evidenced by the beeping of horns and offers of food.

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Edel Coulter, who has worked in the cancer services unit for 13 years, said she has heard plenty of talk over the last month since the last walk out, but not much action.

"They talk about support. That is lovely but it does not make a difference to our patients or us," Ms Coulter said.

"Put your money where your mouth is. As politicians, they are elected to do something, that is why you are there. If you do not feel capable of making a deal then pass it over to someone else and if that needs to be the UK Government, then fine."

At Antrim and Holywell hospitals nurses spoke of their fears for patient safety, describing the harrowing reality of nursing here.

Maeve Murray, a paediatric nurse who has been working since 2004, said: "We've been trying to raise awareness of the consequences of the staffing levels and difficulties that creates in relation to recruitment and retention of nurses, and paediatrics is in a particularly difficult position because it's such a specialist area.

"I'm absolutely devastated that I've had to strike, but I feel like we've been left with no choice.

"I am a trainer now and I find it very hard to get nurses who can take time away from their jobs to do the training they need to do.

"Staffing levels impact on the service itself because nurses are working so hard, they are becoming sick themselves.

"They aren't leaving until a couple of hours after their shift finishes and then when they do leave they can't switch off because they are so worried about their patients.

"I'm a mum of three and it then impacts on your family."

Tara Sanderson, a community mental health nurse, said: "It is heart-breaking when you are dealing with your nursing colleagues whose mental health has deteriorated so badly because of work.

"They then have to go off sick and they can't afford to pay their bills, every week we're handing out food vouchers to at least one nurse who is off sick through stress."

Meanwhile in Londonderry, a nurse on the picket line at Altnagelvin Hospital said he never imagined striking, but he felt it was unavoidable.

Steven Duffy, a theatre and anaesthetic nurse with the Western Trust, was among those standing with his RCN colleagues, who will be joined by other health service unions on Thursday as part of the continued industrial action.

He said: "I never envisioned a day when I would be on a picket line but it had to happen because patient safety comes first and we just don't have enough staff."

Andrew Doherty, a RCN official who has been a nurse in Altnagelvin's cardiology department for 10 years, said he was disappointed by the Department of Health's lack of response to their action.

"In November when we balloted members over 95% voted for strike action and this is part of our planned schedule," he said.

"We are getting platitudes from people who are saying they support us but nothing has happened.

"There has been no further negotiations, no further offers and no commitment from the department and that is disappointing," he added.

Mr Doherty said that the support from the public and patients showed no signs of diminishing, with a local business supplying them with free tea and coffee.

Laura McClintock, who is a clinical nurse specialist in palliative care, said she felt they had been left with no other option but to strike again.

"Striking was not a decision I or any other nurse took lightly but it is entirely reflective of the situation the profession is in at the minute," she said.

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