Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland health crisis: Do a deal to end nurses strike, political parties urged

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety of permanent secretary Richard Pengelly (PA)
Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety of permanent secretary Richard Pengelly (PA)
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's political parties have just five days to stop further crippling strike action by thousands of nurses.

Pressure is mounting on the DUP and Sinn Fein to come to an agreement that will restore power at Stormont.

The clock is ticking as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is pressing ahead with plans to stage further strike action next Wednesday and Friday.

Tonight the Health and Social Care board said emergency departments were working under extreme pressure, with increasing numbers of children and older, sicker people needed to be admitted.

The Western Trust said the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen was "very busy".

Healthcare workers are campaigning for better pay and staffing levels across Northern Ireland. However, the permanent secretary for the Department of Health, Richard Pengelly, has said he cannot afford to meet the demands of the health unions.

Mr Pengelly also said he does not have the power to overturn a previous ministerial decision to stop pay parity with the rest of the UK.

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The Secretary of State has been urged to intervene, but has insisted that health is a devolved matter.

A source close to the Northern Ireland Office said Julian Smith remains committed to finding a solution to the impasse, but says there won't be direct rule.

An election will be called if an Executive is not formed by the January 13 deadline. This is because the legislation that gives civil servants guidance on how to make political decisions comes to an end on that date.

Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: "Although we wish to see political leadership and accountability in Northern Ireland restored, above all, nurses want to see action to resolve the crisis in health care.

"Over the Christmas and New Year period, while many have been able to take a break, nursing staff and others on the front line of our health care services have been dealing with ever-increasing pressures.

"Nurses are dismayed by the fact that this situation continues to worsen and someone, somewhere needs to be accountable.

"Sorting out this crisis is a priority, regardless of our political situation.

"We need decisions made quickly before we reach the point of no return."

The health service was brought to its knees in December as thousands of staff, including nurses, paramedics, domestic staff, and laboratory workers, staged all out-strike action.

Health bosses said there was widespread disruption to services as a result.

Paula Bradshaw, the Alliance Party's health spokeswoman, called on the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together to ensure there is no further industrial action.

She said: "Our view on this is that there is no reason, with the reform of the petition of concern and restriction on parties bringing down the Executive, we cannot go back to having an Executive by agreeing a programme for government over the next few days.

"The DUP has been identified as the hold-up but has long said it has no red lines.

"So let us get on with it and sort out the issues, not least patient safety and nurses' pay and conditions."

The strike held by the RCN on December 18 was the first time in the 103-year history of the organisation that it took such action.

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