Minister urged to resolve dispute
Unions have called on Northern Ireland's health minister to engage to avert another major strike after thousands of NHS staff walked out today.
Jim Wells has said he is willing to discuss an "affordable" pay settlement after the protest about salary rises by members of the GMB and Unite.
Pharmacists, scientists, other hospital support staff and paramedics are supporting the industrial action.
Laboratory scientist David Moorehead said the minister needed to come forward after unions in England called off their action following lengthy talks with the Government in Westminster.
"We are hoping if the minister comes back as they have in England and makes an offer we can discuss pay.
"There is a day planned for the 13th of March by the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions, hopefully the minister will engage with the unions before that."
A strike planned by NHS staff in England was suspended so union members could be consulted on a new offer.
The offer drawn up in Westminster includes a consolidated 1% pay rise for all staff up to senior level and an additional £200 payment for lower paid staff.
There is also a commitment from the Government to the NHS Pay Review Body and that it will continue to make future recommendations on pay rises for NHS staff in 2016/17.
Unions said the proposed pay deal had not been matched by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.
Another union, Unison, is to ballot its members in Northern Ireland for industrial action over pay.
The GMB said its members in the NHS would take action for 12 hours from 9am today, while ambulance staff will walk out for 12 hours from noon.
Mr Moorehead, an officer with Unite, said members had no choice but to act.
"There are more demands on services, you can see with the waiting times at A&E and bed capacities that there is a squeeze and staff are feeling the pinch.
"They are working, they are not getting a pay rise and morale is suffering."
Small groups of workers bearing placards and the red Unite flag gathered in slushy snow at the entrances to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Northern Ireland's largest, in west Belfast.
Some drivers hit their horns to indicate support.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said: "The Department is of course pleased that the unions have called off their industrial action in England. We note the mutual agreement which has been reached which, significantly, will not risk frontline jobs and will not involve any increased cost to the taxpayer.
"Although the arrangements for 2014/15 are settled, we have previously indicated to trade union colleagues locally that we are willing to discuss an affordable pay settlement going forward within the parameters of the current cost envelope."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "The Department's door has always been open, and remains open.
"With the unions moving ahead across the water and settling a deal on the basis of no extra cost to the taxpayer, the desire of their colleagues here to persist with industrial action is extremely hard to justify."
She said in spite of the financial challenges, all staff in Northern Ireland are receiving at least 1% extra this year either through incremental progression or a 1% pay award for those at the top of the pay scale, adding the incremental increases were not insignificant.
"The substantial proportion of resources devoted to staff costs will always have to be balanced alongside other elements of the overall spend, particularly that directly for patients' treatments.
"Health and social care staff are our greatest asset. The minister recognises well their hard work and commitment, and will continue endeavouring to ensure they are appropriately rewarded within the resources available to the Executive."