'I'm here with a heavy heart... this is something no nurse wants to do'
'Solidarity for ever, whatever the weather' was the message on the ground at Craigavon Area Hospital, where hundreds of staff braved the wind and rain to join yesterday's picket.
From early morning, the busy roundabout leading to the hospital was lined with banners and flags representing the Royal College of Nursing, members of which were on the picket line for the first time alongside colleagues from the Nipsa, Unison and Unite trade unions.
While the weather was miserable, the mood among the strikers was anything but low.
With many sliding around in the mud as the rain fell for most of the morning, they were bolstered by the constant cheers and toots of car horns from supportive passers-by, as well as the endless supply of tea and sandwiches coming their way.
At lunchtime they took their protest around the hospital grounds, marching to the sound of calls for "pay parity now".
Earlier in the day they had been told of the "very challenging conditions" inside the building, but the patients were foremost in the thoughts of those protesting outside.
Among them was nurse Andrew Hamill (33), who was on the picket line "with a heavy heart". "This is something that no nurse wants to do, but I see the pressures every day due to not having enough staff on the wards," he said.
"Sadly, there isn't a day that goes by when a nurse is not left in tears because they can't provide the level of care that they want to give to patients."
Many of those on the picket line at Craigavon directed their anger at Secretary of State Julian Smith, including John Creaney, who has worked at the hospital for 14 years.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that we have to come to a picket line for something that just needs a signature," he said.
"But we will keep standing out here in the wind, rain and snow if necessary until this pay disparity is ended and we have safe staffing levels.
"My concern is that Julian Smith isn't putting the patients who are in the beds first."
Newly qualified social worker Carrie Wright (27) was embarrassed to tell her colleagues back in Manchester where she studied that she was earning £7,000 less in Northern Ireland.
"They were complaining about their low wages at our graduation in July and were shocked to hear what I was earning in comparison," she said.
"It made me feel very undervalued when I'm doing the exact same level of work as them.
"If things continue the way they are, I would have to consider moving back over to England, even though I want to be at home and close to my family."
Visiting the picket line, Fiona Devlin, chair of the RCN Northern Ireland board, said it was "a sad day" for nurses and patients.