'Inevitable' health service strike will impact patients, says Richard Pengelly
First phase of industrial action underway
The head of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland has said it is inevitable industrial action will impact patients.
Members of trade union Unison including staff working in sterile services at the Belfast City Hospital and Antrim Area Hospital as well as support staff at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald took to picket lines on Monday as part of the first wave of industrial action by health and social care workers.
Unison members across the health and social services system also began action short of strike.
Permanent secretary Richard Pengelly said contingency planning was underway to mitigate the effects of strike action, saying the department did everything in it's power to prevent it.
Civil service leaders have spoken of their regret that strike action will proceed despite making a pay offer they say would add 2.1% to the bill for Agenda for Change staff.
Agenda for Change is the national pay system for all NHS staff, with the exception of doctors, dentists and the most senior managers.
The Department for Health had wanted to offer a 3% pay increase that would match the increase offered in England this year, but that budgetary constraints would not allow them to do so.
Talks with employers ended without agreement on Friday, with the first phase of industrial action planned to run to December 18.
"The budgetary pressures on health and other parts of the public sector are very well known," said Mr Pengelly.
"In the absence of ministers, departments are constrained in the actions they can take.
"We continue to face unprecedented challenges in Northern Ireland and we trust trade unions appreciate that public servants in the civil service are trying to do their best in a very difficult situation."
The head of the NI Civil Service David Sterling said he was aware of the "deep frustrations" among front line staff following "years of budgetary pressures and pay restraint".
"There are no easy fixes in our current situation to these problems but dialogue offers the best way forward," he said.
The permanent secretary of the Department of Finance Sue Gray said all funding had already been allocated to all departments and said she is eager to engage with health and social care staff before next year's budget.
"The Department of Health budget has been prioritised and protected as far as possible in the context of a very challenging environment in which we are operating and the many public services which are facing financial pressures.
"There is no doubt that departments face difficult decisions with departments having to prioritise the funding of pay awards against the other pressures facing essential public services."
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said the industrial action was aimed at workers' "unjust pay and unsafe staffing levels".
"We know that the public is supportive of our campaign for pay justice and we ask that they show their support for their health workers today and in the weeks to come," she said.
"The beginning of industrial action must serve as a reality check to those in charge of the health service. They now must deliver for the public and the workforce."
Meanwhile the Health and Social Care System (HSC) has issued advice to patients over potential effects of the industrial action.
"Trusts are working hard, where possible, to contact any patients and service users who may be impacted by any disruption to services or cancellations,” the HSC said in a statement.
"All HSC organisations will continue to work closely together to mitigate the effects of any disruption.
"Information updates on patient services will be posted on trust websites and via social media over the next week."