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Pay talks between Northern Ireland health workers and department end

Industrial action by healthcare workers is due to being next week
Industrial action by healthcare workers is due to being next week
Andrew Madden

By Andrew Madden

Pay negotiations between the Department of Health and health workers' unions have ended without agreement.

The news comes as nurses and other healthcare workers are due to begin the first phase of industrial action next week over a dispute about staffing levels and wages.

Earlier this month, 23% of Unison members, which represents 25,000 nurses, ambulance staff and social care workers, took part in a ballot on industrial action, with 92% voting in favour of striking.

The ballot followed a vote by Northern Ireland members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in favour of industrial action - the first time in RCN's 103-year history such a decision has been taken in the UK.

Industrial action is due to being on November 25.

What has been proposed would see the gap in pay widening between our staff and colleagues in the rest of the UK. Health workers' unions

The Department of Health said it offered a 2.1% increase in the wage bill for Agenda for Change, the framework which covers most of the Northern Ireland health and social care workforce.

Under the offer, eligible staff would also get "pay progression increases" to move them towards the top of their respective pay bands, adding an estimate 1% to the pay bill.

All increases would also have been backdated to April 2019.

Unions, however, said this offer was rejected last week.

"There was nothing new from the Department and Employers on this issue," they said in a statement.

"What has been proposed would see the gap in pay widening between our staff and colleagues in the rest of the UK.

"This will not only impact now on pay levels but will have a detrimental impact on future pay and pensions."

While I would have preferred to be in a position to make a higher pay offer, this is the best we can afford given the budgetary constraints and limited authority in the absence of a Minister. Richard Pengelly

Department of Health permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said the breakdown in negotiations was "regrettable" and the department has asked trade unions to defer industrial action "that will inevitably make a difficult situation worse".

"Officials remain very willing to discuss and indeed take part in an independently facilitated process which we consider is a much safer and more constructive approach to breaking what has become an impasse," he said.

“While I would have preferred to be in a position to make a higher pay offer, this is the best we can afford given the budgetary constraints and limited authority in the absence of a Minister. Of course, a returning Minister would be able to revisit this issue, with the greater ability to address the affordability constraint. 

"Suspending industrial action and participating in the process we have suggested would not prevent that from happening.

“There are widespread concerns that this winter will be particularly challenging for health and social care services here and across these islands."

In response to the DoH statement, Pat Cullen, the director of the Royal College of Nursing, said the news was an "insult to nursing" and a "blow to patient care" in Northern Ireland.

“This ‘pay offer’ widens further the gap in pay between nurses in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and does absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis in health care," she said.

“We are aghast that the Department of Health still does not appear to take seriously the issues facing nursing staff in Northern Ireland and, in comparison to figures presented to the trade unions earlier this year, there appears to be even less in the budget now.

“Our members will be extremely angry to learn this information. This only affirms the decision that RCN members have made in relation to taking industrial action and strike action over the coming weeks."

Meanwhile, the Health and Social Care Board (HSC) has issued advice to patients over potential effects of next week's industrial action.

In a statement the HSC said sterile services across major hospitals, some hospital and social care transport, a number of patient support services such as catering and laundry as well as portering services may be affected.

"The type of industrial action will vary from trust to trust and will also take place in different areas, at different times," the HSC statement continued.

"We apologise to all those patients and family members who may be affected.

"Trusts are working hard, where possible, to contact any patients and service users who may be impacted by any disruption to services or cancellations.

"All HSC organisations will continue to work closely together to mitigate the effects of any disruption.

"Information updates on patient services will be posted on trust websites and via social media over the next week."

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