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Northern Ireland health crisis: Strikes could push NHS 'beyond tipping point'

Workers picket outside Altnagelvin Area Hospital
Workers picket outside Altnagelvin Area Hospital
Lisa Smyth

Lisa Smyth

Two of the biggest health unions will continue their crippling strike action on Friday as their fight for better pay and conditions gathers pace.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is due to stage its second 12-hour strike this week, while Unison members will take part in co-ordinated action around Northern Ireland.

There will be a 12-hour strike by all Unison members between 8am and 8pm at Ulster, Ards and Bangor hospitals, while hospitals in Belfast will be hit by Unison nurses striking for the first four hours of their shifts.

There will also be a four-hour strike across the whole of the Western Trust, beginning at 10am, while Unison receptionists and ward clerks at Antrim Area Hospital's ED will walk out between 4am and noon.

It comes after Wednesday's 12-hour strike by RCN members who are campaigning to improve patient safety across Northern Ireland.

More than 2,000 appointments and procedures were cancelled, including a number of elective caesarean operations, as a result.

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However, there are fears that Friday's action could have catastrophic consequences for the already fragile health service.

Dr Tony Stevens, chief executive of the Northern Trust, expressed his concern about the timing of the action - coming as the service is already under considerable pressure.

And he warned that the full impact of this week's strike action may not become evident until Sunday.

Striking staff outside Belfast City Hospital
Striking staff outside Belfast City Hospital

The chief executives of the health trusts have come under fire for raising concerns over the safety of the ongoing industrial action. In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, they said: "With two strike days planned in the space of 72 hours this week, there are serious concerns that the system could be pushed beyond the tipping point.

"This could mean patient safety compromised as never before.

"While we continue to support our staff and are respectful of their right to take action, we would urge a postponement.

"Given the pressurised context, we believe this would be a responsible action as we know their members care deeply about patient and client safety."

Dr Stevens was present at the picket line at the entrance of Antrim Area Hospital on Wednesday, where he denied claims by the RCN that nurses feel they are being "bullied" by bosses calling for a pause to the strike action.

"Obviously there is real tension at the moment, but I think the chief executives have been very clear in their support for the staff fighting for pay parity and we share their concerns about staffing," he said.

"I am very concerned that after all this is over, that the public will have lost confidence in the health service.

"We want to attract people to work here but how can we do that if we're making headlines saying the service isn't safe?

"I don't agree that it isn't safe. In the midst of all the noise, can we please recognise that the quality of care that the vast majority of people get is a good standard?

"We employ fantastic staff, doing fantastic work, who are doing amazing things under too much pressure, but we believe the industrial action may take us beyond tipping point.

"The reality is it's a tough day in our hospital today and Friday will be hard, but I worry about Sunday the most.

"We can't discharge a lot of patients on a Saturday, so I think Sunday is when you're going to see problems."

Striking workers outside Ulster Hospital
Striking workers outside Ulster Hospital

Asked whether it is realistic to expect health service members to postpone strike action in the hope that political parties will return to a power-sharing executive, Dr Stevens said: "I think we should have confidence in the politicians."

It has been claimed repeatedly by the Secretary of State that only the Department of Health can provide pay parity.

The political parties have until Monday to re-establish an executive or face an election.

On Wednesday, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that Northern Ireland is facing the possibility of crippling strike action by teachers, NHS staff and civil servants in a matter of weeks.

Public service unions are discussing staging industrial action on a scale never been seen before in Northern Ireland in a bid to save the crisis-hit health service.

They are also considering asking private sector workers to come out and protest in solidarity as efforts to secure pay parity and safe staffing levels in the health service are ramped up.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph