Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland health service faces disaster after unions reject chiefs' final pay offer

Representatives of four trade unions described a new pay offer made by the Department of Health amid industrial action as
Representatives of four trade unions described a new pay offer made by the Department of Health amid industrial action as "insufficient". Rebecca Black/PA Wire
Nurses protest outside the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast
Picket line at Belfast City hospital
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's health service is heading for meltdown after unions rejected a final pay offer from NHS chiefs.

The Department of Health offered an additional £28m to NHS staff in a last-ditch attempt to ward off strike action that is likely to bring the health service here to its knees less than two weeks from now.

However, the total £79m package was turned down by unions because it fails to bring wages here into line with the rest of the UK.

Thousands of Unison members have already staged walkouts, while the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) implemented a work-to-rule policy among its members on Tuesday.

Picket line at Musgrave Park
Picket line at Musgrave Park

In light of last night's development, disruption to services will now continue next week, with the RCN preparing to strike for the first time in its 103-year history on December 18. Health chiefs have warned patients face further misery as a result of the latest development.

Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said last night the pay offer falls "significantly short" of requirements.

"Despite the intervention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it is clear that Department of Health officials are still incapable of grasping either the severity of the crisis in our health service or the determination of nurses and other health staff to secure safe staffing and pay equality," she added.

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"Nurses are no longer prepared to listen to the same excuses from the Department of Health about budgets and/or not having the ministerial authority to deliver an acceptable pay award even if the money were available.

"Our health service is collapsing as we speak.

"It is simply not good enough for civil servants to continue to play with words and fail to take effective action to resolve this crisis.

Julian Smith
Julian Smith

"The RCN believes the gap between what the department is offering and what nurses expect in terms of pay parity can be achieved."

Unison regional director Patricia McKeown also hit out at the department and Northern Ireland Secretary.

"It is now clear that neither the Department of Health nor the Secretary of State has acted in good faith. Our worst fears have been realised," she said.

"They are using the health service, health workers and patients alike as bargaining chips to force the return of Stormont.

"The refusal to act now in the public interest in the face of the crisis in the health service is not only irresponsible but appears to us to be the misuse of political leverage by the UK Government and the administration of the state in Northern Ireland.

"We challenge the Secretary of State to explain how and why this is happening."

Unison’s Patricia McKeown
Unison’s Patricia McKeown

Department of Health officials had been hoping to stave off further industrial action with the fresh offer, which was bolstered by additional funds from the Department of Finance.

A spokesman from the department said cash from the upcoming January monitoring round process had been made available.

He explained: "Funding no longer required was surrendered by a number of departments on Wednesday as part of this process.

"Given the current pressures and extenuating circumstances, the Department of Finance has taken the unprecedented step to expedite the reallocation of £28m of this money to the Department of Health for immediate use.

"The intention is this will help address some of the Department of Health pay funding pressures.

"The January monitoring round process is still ongoing.

Richard Pengelly
Richard Pengelly

"Once this is complete, details of all allocations will be published in full."

The failed negotiations yesterday afternoon came after the unions met with Secretary of State Julian Smith for crunch talks on the issue.

After the meetings, Mr Smith posted on Twitter: "Following positive discussions with the unions today, I welcome the improved offer from the Department of Health - and hope it will be carefully considered by the unions."

Reacting to the unions' rejection of the final offer, the permanent secretary of the Department of Health, Richard Pengelly, expressed his disappointment at the development.

"It is a matter of great regret that unions have taken this position indicating that industrial action will now escalate," he said.

"This will impact significantly on patient care in an already very challenging period for the health service.

"We have made a sizeable new offer. In the absence of ministers, this is the furthest I am able to go. It is therefore the final offer for this year.

"I accept it does not address everything trade unions wanted. That will require a minister and longer-term budgetary certainty.

"Neither does it resolve the financial and other challenges which the department is facing.

"While we cannot make a firm offer for next year in the absence of a budget, it is my clear intention to replicate the third year of the three-year Agenda for Change pay settlement in 2020/21.

"We did that in 2018/19 and this latest offer does the same for this year."

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie has written a moving account of how his baby grandson died while on a waiting list for a second MRI scan.

"The family were told that these types of delays are built into the system due to workload, and the pressure of too many patients and not enough capacity. The coroner said it was an opportunity missed, but for the family that was too late," he wrote.

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