The woman who led thousands of nurses across Northern Ireland as they fought for better pay and conditions has issued a stark warning to the Government.
Pat Cullen, who has been appointed general secretary and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), has urged the Government to “do the right thing” and award healthcare workers a “substantial and significant pay rise”.
And she has sent a message to political leaders in Northern Ireland to avoid following Westminster if it fails to deliver an adequate pay rise.
It is understood an announcement is to be made at Westminster today, with speculation that nurses will be offered a 3% rise.
Ms Cullen, who led RCN (NI) during the strike by public service unions here at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, said she does not believe this will be sufficient to stop a “catastrophic drain” of nurses from the UK.
She said “anything less than a substantial and significant pay rise” will result in so many nurses leaving the profession that the health service will be unable to cope with the latest Covid-19 wave.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, she said: “I would urge not just Robin Swann, but every political leader in Northern Ireland to step up and do the right thing.
"Pay is a devolved matter and it is within the gift of the politicians at Stormont to make a different offer from the one made by Westminster. It is absolutely vital that all political leaders do not follow blindly Westminster on this.
"It is the least the nurses and the people of Northern Ireland deserve, to not award nurses a decent pay rise would be another slap in the face for a workforce that has given its all throughout the pandemic.
"Our nurses are exhausted, they are burnt out, and a failure to make an offer of a substantial pay rise will result in a complete drain of the workforce.
"Nurses are already leaving on a daily basis. The RCN is extremely worried as we go into this fourth wave and we know the health service will not cope if we continue to lose nurses the way we’re doing.”
It comes after Ms Cullen posted a warning shot to the Government on Twitter: “Please don’t push our nurses to where they were in Northern Ireland, standing on picket lines for safe staffing and a decent wage.
"This would be wrong on every level after what nurses and all HSC staff have gone through. Do the decent thing.”
If an offer is made today, the RCN will hold a consultative ballot of its members on whether to accept the pay rise. If it is rejected, they will hold a ballot on industrial action.
However, nurses here may be able to take industrial action sooner than their counterparts in the rest of the UK due to the fact that the previous strike was only suspended.
It is understood the RCN is taking legal advice on the matter.
Earlier this year, the Government said it could only afford to offer a 1% pay rise but it emerged yesterday that NHS staff may be offered 3%.
There is also speculation that just 1.5% of the 3% would be added permanently to salaries, with the other 1.5% given as a one-off payment.
Health Minister Robin Swann has so far refused to be drawn on the offer he would be prepared to make NHS staff in Northern Ireland but he has pointed to the fact that pay parity is in operation.