Belfast Telegraph

New health crisis looming in Northern Ireland as nursing body to ballot members over strike action

Disillusionment: Pat Cullen
Disillusionment: Pat Cullen

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's health service is facing a fresh crisis as nurses vote on whether they want to strike over pay and conditions.

In an unprecedented move, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland is to ballot members on strike action, a decision which has been described last night by the Department of Health as "disappointing".

The four-week ballot, which comes after the RCN failed to reach an agreement with health bosses over pay and conditions, will begin on October 9.

Results are expected to be announced the day after the ballot closes, at which point the nursing union is required to give employers four weeks' notice of any intended industrial action.

This means industrial action, including walk outs, could begin by the beginning of December - just one month after the UK is scheduled to leave the EU.

A leaked government document has warned more than 1,000 NHS staff may be unable to get to work, or may quit their jobs altogether, if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal.

As a result, there are concerns that industrial action combined with the effects of Brexit will cause widespread disruption to the health service in Northern Ireland.

The ballot by the RCN comes after the organisation made repeated warnings about the health of members, who are being stretched to the limit in hospital wards, GP surgeries and nursing homes across Northern Ireland.

Almost 3,000 nursing posts are unfilled across the system, with a similar level of vacancies estimated in nursing homes.

Nurses are frequently being expected to work through their breaks and additional hours to their rotas just to keep services running.

Meanwhile, pay for nursing staff within the health service in Northern Ireland continues to fall behind England, Scotland and Wales.

The real value of nurses' pay here has fallen by 15% over the last eight years, whilst the cost of securing nursing staff via agencies has increased year on year.

At the same time, nurses have reported using food banks and the RCN has warned the conditions in which they are working are having an adverse impact on their mental health.

Pat Cullen, the director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: "The time has come when our members are saying clearly to us that they can no longer continue to work under the current conditions.

"The palpable sense of disillusionment and even anger amongst RCN members in Northern Ireland over staffing and pay continues to grow," she said.

"To date, pay discussions have been unsuccessful... As a profession, we are no longer prepared to tolerate the risk that low staffing levels pose to patients (and) nursing staff.

"No nurse that I know would ever want to take industrial action, but we have simply been left with no choice - it's a sad day for nursing in Northern Ireland when it has come to this."

In response, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said "industrial action will do nothing to resolve workforce challenges and can only penalise patients at a particularly difficult and uncertain time".

They added: "While there is no doubt that nurses and other HSC staff are under increasing pressure, this is because they are working in a health system that is widely recognised as outdated and in urgent need for reform.

"The Department is committed to radical reform through the transformation agenda. That is the long-term answer to many of the workplace pressures facing nurses and other colleagues, and work on this is progressing well."

The spokesperson stressed investment has been made to grow the nursing and midwifery workforce to meet rising demand for care. .

"In terms of pay for 2019/20, and despite serious budgetary pressures, we remain committed to finding a way forward in the ongoing talks. However, and as we keep saying, we cannot spend money we do not have."

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