Northern Ireland nurses brave weather on picket lines amid storm over pay
Nurses braved the weather and took industrial action on Tuesday for the second time this month as they gathered at Belfast City Hospital for a lunchtime picket.
The members from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) voted to take "action short of a strike" in November over ongoing concerns around pay parity and safe staffing levels.
Tuesday's hour-long walkout followed on from action taken on December 3, and the process is due to be repeated again today, with a further 12-hour strike set to take place on December 18.
Despite the wild and wet conditions, there was a determined sense among the nurses that they were doing the right thing by their patients and colleagues.
Encouraged by the RCN not to provide names for fear of being identified by the trust, one nurse in the cancer care department said she has been employed in the service for 39 years.
She explained the decision to be absent from her patients was not taken lightly: "We don't want to be on strike, but we realise it has come to the point where we have been talking for years.
"[MLAs] decided to cut pay for Northern Ireland staff in the public sector. At that time they also gave themselves a 10% pay rise, which is really disgusting when you think about it.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"Everyone has given us messages of support. They have contacted us directly to say 'we are absolutely 100% behind you'. Even patients who are currently undergoing treatment think we are right and we must do this."
Another male nurse on the picket has been working in the service for five years since graduating from university. Working in intensive care, he explained that many of his friends have moved to other parts of the UK in order to seek better-paid work.
He said: "We do this with a heavy heart. A lot of my friends went across the water and worked in England, especially in London.
"You can go across the water and can get paid more money for doing the same job.
"At the end of the day we are all here still in the service, we are doing our jobs. We are doing it with a heart and a half - the same way we do every single job and every single duty in our everyday life. This strike is something that we have had our hand forced on."
One nurse who has only been working at Belfast City Hospital for a year already admits to feeling under pressure and questioning her decision to enter the profession.
She said: "It's really hard when you're just starting out. You think: 'Have I made a really awful decision?' We've chosen this career because we have a heart and we don't want to leave our patients. We want to look after people, so actually the action of walking away is massive."
Standing outside the main entrance to the hospital, there were frequent sounds of support from members of the public in passing cars, alongside pedestrians who regularly wished the staff well as they passed by.
One member of staff has worked in the hospital for 30 years as a nurse. While much of the argument has centred around pay levels, she explained that she was out on behalf of ensuring her patients had the best service possible.
She said: "It is not just about pay parity, it is about patient safety. Everyone is standing together and saying that the Belfast Trust need to recognise that there are big staff shortages and that will impact on patient safety.
"This is the first time the RCN is out on strike, so it is a big deal for all of the nurses. The nurses realise when they come out that the wards maybe are a bit short, but they all have to stick together. They are doing it for each other.
"The level of support is good from patients and from the general public and I think they understand the situation that we are in."
The consistent message emphasised among the staff present was that they were seeking "equality" with fellow nursing colleagues around the UK. A dermatology nurse who has worked in the service for 16 years stressed that nurses were "definitely feeling the pressure".
She added: "It is important for safe and effective nursing care and for protecting patients to have equality with the rest of the UK.
"You see girls now who are leaving after they have trained for three years at university and they are going to work in different areas because they can't take the pressure any more.
"Nurses are just not going to take it any more."