Belfast Telegraph

Health chief Richard Pengelly urges unions back to negotiating table as more strikes confirmed

Unison members on strike outside the Ulster Hospital last month
Unison members on strike outside the Ulster Hospital last month

By Andrew Madden and Rebecca Black

The Department of Health has urged trade unions to return to talks ahead of planned strike action this week.

Richard Pengelly was speaking as Northern Ireland's health service faces another week of disruption, with more strikes announced by trade unions.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing are to stage walkouts on Wednesday, while members of Unison, Northern Ireland's largest healthcare union, are to go on strike on Friday.

Unison workers across four health trusts are taking the industrial action over pay and staffing levels.

The announcement comes following industrial action by Unison and Royal College of Nursing members last month.

Unions are also calling from pay parity with the rest of the UK and a solution to the crisis has been at the forefront in talks aimed at restoring Stormont power sharing.

The union representing midwifes is also balloting its members as to if they should strike.

The department's permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly, said it was not too late to call the action off, warning that hospitals are already under severe pressure.

"It's still not too late for trade unions to defer the industrial action planned for this week and get back round the table," he said.

"We have repeatedly made clear that our door remained open for discussions - with the specific aim of drawing up a detailed, costed, implementation plan on staffing.

Richard Pengelly
Richard Pengelly

"We see no good reason why such dialogue cannot begin immediately.

"Deferring strike action would be in the best interests of patients and patient safety and would provide the necessary space for fresh dialogue.

"Our hospitals are already under severe pressure at present, even before the planned industrial action takes place this week."

A wave of actions is planned across Northern Ireland.

At the Belfast trust, all nursing staff at Belfast City Hospital, Royal Victoria Hospital, Mater Hospital, Knockbracken Park Hospital, as well as all community nursing staff, will take part in walkouts from 8am to 8pm, during the first four hours of each shift.

On call workers at all Northern Trust hospitals and community locations, excluding those in the Causeway area, will walk out from 12.01am to 11.59pm, while A&E clerks and receptionists will go on strike from 4am to 8am and 8am to 12pm across two shifts.

Administrative staff, social workers and community care support workers will walk out from 9am to 12pm.

At the South Eastern trust, all members at Ulster Hospital, Ards Hospital, Bangor Hospital and North Down and Ards community settings will walk out from 8am to 8pm. Overtime and bank staff at selected locations will also go on strike from 12.01pm to 11.59pm.

From 10am to 2pm, all Western trust members at South West Acute Hospital, Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex, Altnagelvin Hospital, community facilities and sites in the Gransha, Tyrone and Fermanagh areas will walk out from 10am to 2pm.

Mr Pengelly said that pay parity is a "matter for consideration by a minister".

"That is a position that cannot be changed by industrial action," he said.

"In terms of political resolution, all main political parties have already publicly supported the calls for parity with England, and talks are ongoing about restoration of the devolved institutions.

"It is only that process that can provide the mechanism for a sustainable solution on pay."

Meanwhile, members of the Royal College of Nursing will stage their second day of strike action on Wednesday.

Negotiations between the Department of Health and unions broke down last month when unions rejected the offer of a 3.1% pay increase.

On Monday, a ballot of members of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) opened, asking midwives and maternity support workers whether they want to talk industrial action up to and including strike action.

The RCM's Northern Ireland director, Karen Murray, said they have "exhausted every avenue" tying to resolve the dispute.

“Despite our best efforts to negotiate a fair pay deal for our members, the department have failed to come to an agreement,” she said.

“Our midwives here are much worse off in their pay packet than their colleagues in other parts of the UK.

“This is simply neither right nor fair. That is why we are recommending our members to vote yes to industrial action.”

The RCM ballot will close on January 29.

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