Belfast Telegraph

As Northern Ireland health strike threatens children assessments and patient meals, Julian Smith refuses to intervene


Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019
Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
The picket line and walk out at the Ulster hospital. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Unison members on strike outside the Ulster Hospital last month
Andrew Madden

By Andrew Madden

Patients' meals and the assessment of at-risk children could be hit by industrial action across the Northern Ireland health service, it has emerged.

There have also been calls for the Secretary of State to get involved to avoid a full-blown crisis, however Julian Smith has said health in Northern Ireland remains a devolved matter.

Have you been affected by the industrial action being taken by NHS staff? Tell us your story - get in touch digital.editorial@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

At 12.01am on Tuesday, around 16,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) began industrial action over pay and staffing levels, refusing to do any work that is not "patient specific". It is the first time in the organisation's history it has taken such action.

Members of the Unison union are also taking industrial action.

Thousands of appointments, surgeries and procedures have also been cancelled this week, with the Belfast Trust stating more than 10,000 patients will be affected.

Tony Stevens, chief executive of the Northern Health Trust, said all sections of the health service have to work together as a team, meaning when industrial action affects one area, it will have a knock-on effect on others.

NIPSA are one of the trade unions that represent our social workers and when they start taking action there could be delays, potentially, for the assessments of children who are referred to us as potentially being at risk. Tony Stevens

He said this could even hinder the feeding of patients.

"All our inpatients need to be fed, all our patients who come to day centres, adult centres and patients in our residential homes need to be fed," he told the BBC's Nolan Show.

"Some need special diets, which are expertly put together for them, and some need help with the actual act of eating. So this is really down to the basics."

Another area that could be hit is health and wellbeing assessments for children that are deemed to be potentially "at-risk".

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Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

"NIPSA are one of the trade unions that represent our social workers and when they start taking action there could be delays, potentially, for the assessments of children who are referred to us as potentially being at risk," Mr Stevens said.

"So it's the whole range of services we provide [that could be affected]."

Mr Stevens said that the health service has been able to stay "on top" of urgent and acute health cases by delaying elective and non-urgent cases, hence Northern Ireland's long waiting lists. Due to industrial action, however, acute and urgent cases may now have to be delayed.

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Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

He called on the Secretary of State to step in to resolve the situation, however Julian Smith said the matter should be decided on by a local power-sharing Executive, which has not sat in almost three years.

Mr Stevens added: "Clearly, as far as I can see, it has ended up at [Julian Smith's] door now... We don't have a devolved administration here.

"I think it will be for him to consider how we can find a longer term solution and get people back in the room, looking for a longer term solution."

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Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: "Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, the secretary of state is aware of and extremely concerned about the challenges facing health provision in Northern Ireland. He last week met the NI Department of Health and RCN on this specific issue.

“The government is clear this is one of a number of the urgent problems that we need a restored Executive to tackle and that is why we are so focused on getting Stormont back.”

On December 18, nurses across Northern Ireland are set to take full strike action and a walkout will take place.

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Nurses gathered at the gates of the Royal Victoria Hospital staging industrial action in protest at pay and unsafe staffing levels. December 2, 2019 Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

Tony Stevens said he is "hoping and praying" that strike action is not taken on that day.

"We would be stripped-back to the bare essentials of running an emergency department, only providing the most urgent care... But we wouldn't be doing all the things that would be preparing us for Christmas, because Christmas is a week away at that point," he said.

"The most difficult and challenging time in our entire year follows Christmas. [If a strike takes place] we will be focused on will effectively be a business continuity plan for the 18th, when all our energy should be focused on preparing for going into January."

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