Belfast Telegraph

Health service pay rises will leave a £100m hole in budget, claim officials

Nurses here are being balloted on possible strike action
Nurses here are being balloted on possible strike action

By David O'Dornan

Pay demands from health unions threatening strike action would put a £100m hole in an already stretched budget, officials have warned.

A briefing document issued to the health spokespersons for each of Stormont's political parties by the Department has been seen by the Belfast Telegraph.

On the issue of pay it says: "Trade unions representing staff covered by the Agenda for Change framework are seeking pay parity with GB.

"Introducing such pay parity with England would add some £103m to the pay bill this year. That's not counting pay pressures in other parts of health and social care."

Last month nurses in Northern Ireland began being balloted on strike action over "unacceptable" working conditions - the first such vote in the union's 103-year history.

Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members working in health and social care services have been sent voting papers.

The four-week ballot - asking nurses if they are willing to take industrial action, including going on strike - is set to conclude this week.

With the Assembly suspended, the document says the Department cannot overturn past ministerial decisions on localised pay rates or cut services to fund pay increases.

The full range of the other financial problems - aside from pay - mounting for our health service are laid bare in the document sent to the MLAs.

It says: "HSC Trusts have been facing a projected £20m deficit for 2019/20, but the Permanent Secretary has highlighted further pressures and demands in the months and years ahead.

"This is not an exhaustive list. Nor is it an exercise in special pleading for health. It is clear that other Departments are also facing substantial budgetary challenges of their own.

"Well publicised examples include funding for schools and special educational provision; roads, water and public transport infrastructure, and pay pressures across the public sector.

"To be clear, we are not saying these areas are all under threat. But it will not be feasible to fully fund them all, unless budgetary conditions are radically altered."

Other financial demands listed included an estimated £100m per year tackling the waiting list backlog, £30m per year on more ambulance staff, and millions for issues like training places, new drugs and pension pots.

Former DUP Minister for Health Jim Wells warned some of the financial pressure cannot be avoided.

He said: "When I was Health Minister, after many days of looking at all of the financial pressures, we managed to finish 2014/15 at 0.2% below budget.

"Having looked at Richard Pengelly's most recent figures, I am convinced that without very significant additional funding, the Department of Health is facing a large budget deficit for 2019/20.

"Some of the extra pressures are totally unavoidable. The Department has to pay the additional pension contributions on behalf of its staff. Commitments have already been given to introduce very effective but hugely expensive drugs such as Translarna and Okambi.

"It would be disastrous if the Department reduced its training budget given the fact that Northern Ireland is 2,400 nurses and 200 GPs short at present.

"The only reassuring statistic is that the Health Trusts are projected to only overspend by £20m this year.

"Given the fact their combined budgets exceed £3bn, this is a remarkable achievement in the circumstances.

"Whilst the Health Unions have been pressing for pay parity, it is extremely difficult to see where the additional £103m could be found to bring salaries up to those paid in England."

Mr Wells said equal pay can only be achieved by a phased approach over a four or five year period.

At the weekend a report warned that politicians in Northern Ireland had two months to form an Executive or Westminster must step in to stop the health service here from collapsing.

The lack of an Assembly has pushed the NHS in Northern Ireland to "the point of collapse", according to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Key services, including cancer care, mental health services and community pharmacy, are all struggling to cope.

It warned the health system has been pushed to "breaking point" and warned that delay to address the situation "is no longer an option".

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