Belfast Telegraph

Health officials hold last minute meeting with unions after Secretary of State Smith intervention

NHS workers from a picket line at the Belfast City Hospital in Belfast as part of continuing strike action in the health service. Picture by Philip Magowan /PressEye
NHS workers from a picket line at the Belfast City Hospital in Belfast as part of continuing strike action in the health service. Picture by Philip Magowan /PressEye
Trade unions have described a new pay offer from the Department of Health as “insufficient”. (Rebecca Black/PA)

The Department of Health is meeting with trade union representatives for fresh talks just hours after Secretary of State Julian Smith intervened.

Mr Smith met with unions on Thursday morning as Northern Ireland's health crisis worsens following industrial action by health staff and ahead of strikes planned for later this month.

Health staff are taking action due to pay disputes and concerns over patient safety.

The unions said they expected Thursday afternoon's meeting to be a "negotiating meeting".

Unite's Kevin McAdam said the meeting was called shortly after the unions met the Secretary of State.

He said that he believed the meetings were "in some way connected".

"We are going in with an open mind," he said.

Anne Speed from Unison said that the unions did not "have any high expectations of immediate resolutions".

"Our collective memberships will be the people who will decide whether they are satisfied with the responses they get," she said.

"It's our job to try and work through that and come back to the membership with something substantial.

Health service staff take part in industrial action outside the Ulster Hospital
Health service staff take part in industrial action outside the Ulster Hospital

"But they haven't this decision lightly to enter industrial action, so it has to be meaningful but it's day one, we'll see what happens."

Maria Morgan from NIPSA said that she believed the meeting was directly due to the Secretary of State's involvement.

"We welcome the political intervention from the Secretary of State, and we have highlighted the issues for all of our membership and we will continue to do that in the negotiations this afternoon," she said.

Mr Smith met with a number of union representatives on Thursday morning, including Pat Cullen from the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

She said it had been a "very honest discussion".

"We talked frankly about the crisis in nursing and the fact that 3,000 nurses are missing every day from the workforce and that something needs to be done about that immediately," Mrs Cullen said.

Pat Cullen, director of Royal College of Nursing NI.
Pat Cullen, director of Royal College of Nursing NI.

"The Secretary of State fully acknowledged that and took that on board so we have come away leaving the Secretary of State with a lot of information in relation to the crisis in nursing, the fact that nurses are carrying the health service on their shoulders day and daily."

She said they now "await feedback from the Secretary of State as to those next steps".

Patricia McKeown of Unison said the meeting at Stormont House with the Northern Ireland Secretary had been political in nature, and was not a negotiation.

"I think there will be movement, obviously we have to wait to hear what the department and the employers (say), I don't want to pre-empt those negotiations, but I think it was a positive meeting," she said.

"He certainly expressed to us the desire to do all he can, it is the UK Government, they have got the power, they have got the purse strings."

"Health workers don't want to be standing on picket lines, they don't want to be making the sacrifices, and most of all they don't want patients to be suffering in any way.

"It has finally got as far as the UK Government, we have had a positive meeting, we expect hopefully a positive response."

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