Health crisis: Nurses strike 'could affect patient care in Northern Ireland'
Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride has said he believes Northern Ireland's health service is in "uncharted territory" and fears what the consequences of strike action by nursing staff may bring.
Industrial action involving members of Unison and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) took place on Wednesday with more planned for next week.
But it is a planned 12-hour strike on Wednesday, December 18, that has worried Mr McBride.
Both unions are calling for pay parity with the rest of the UK, while the RCN has warned that wages and conditions are driving nurses out of the health service and putting patients at risk.
The shortage of nurses is also playing a significant role in growing waiting times for hospital appointments and in emergency departments.
Speaking on Radio Ulster's Nolan Show yesterday, Mr McBride stated that strike action across all of the health trusts could lead to "unintended consequences", such as risks to patient safety.
He is now calling on all those involved to "pause, take a step back and agree that this is not something that any of us want".
"I think the impact [of strike action on December 18] will be very considerable," said Mr McBride.
"I fear for the consequences and I don't think those will be planned consequences.
"The scale and scope that is envisaged, in what is already a very fragile health service, facing into what I think will be a very challenging winter where we're likely to see flu peak this side of Christmas in a meaningful way.
"I fear what those consequences will be despite our best intentions. There is every likelihood that despite our best efforts patient care will be compromised."
Mr McBride stressed that no one taking part in industrial action aims to compromise patient care but said his main concern is finding a solution.
"We need to find a way out of this which actually recognises that none of us want unintended consequences because the scope and scale of this is such that there is likely to be unintended consequences despite all our best efforts around derogations and protecting key services," he said.
"The likelihood is unintended consequences and patient care is going to be compromised and potentially patients may be harmed as a result."
Asked if he believes whether or not healthcare staff in Northern Ireland should be paid the same as those in the rest of the UK, Mr McBride said it was not a matter that he can determine.
"My role is to provide advice to a minister and when we have ministers our advice will be clear and unequivocal," he said.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster MLA warned that "we have now reached a point where there are warnings about patient safety".
"Faced with that kind of stark warning we cannot allow further drift," she said.
"I am repeating the call to re-establish the Executive immediately so that decisions can be taken on our health service.
"Agreement can be found on the other outstanding issues within a fixed timeframe. This proposal is the only way to see the kind of immediate action the public demands.
"We simply cannot wait for other important, but less pressing issues, to be resolved before we act to help patients and our hardworking healthcare staff."