Northern Ireland teachers, civil servants and nurses may co-ordinate devastating strikes
Northern Ireland is facing the possibility of crippling strikes by teachers, NHS staff and civil servants in a matter of weeks.
Public service unions are discussing staging industrial action on a scale that has never been seen before in a bid to save the crisis-hit health service.
They are also considering asking private sector workers to protest in solidarity as efforts to secure pay parity and safe staffing levels are ramped up.
It comes as thousands of nurses strike today after politicians failed to act to avert the latest industrial action.
The local Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is staging 12 hours of strike action from 8am to 8pm. It is only the second time the organisation has taken such a step in its 103-year history.
Health bosses warned last night that the newest round of strikes would "have much more serious consequences" than those seen on December 18.
Health trust chief executives said in a statement: "As of 10.15am, there were 217 patients in the emergency departments of Northern Ireland's acute hospitals waiting over 12 hours and 456 over the last 24-hour period.
"With two strike days planned in the space of 72 hours this week, there are serious concerns that the system could be pushed beyond the tipping point.
"This could mean that patient safety will be compromised as never before.
"While we continue to support our staff and are respectful of their right to take action, we would urge a postponement.
"Given the pressurised context, we believe this would be a responsible action as we know their members care deeply about patient and client safety."
But RCN NI director Pat Cullen said: "Nurses aren't surprised to hear the health service is at tipping point. They're dealing with this reality every single day and they're at tipping point. They can't take any more. They're the ones dealing with patients lined up on hospital corridors, looking after patients in a single room, where there are two patients and only one oxygen point.
"They wake up every morning with dread in their hearts. They've been warning of this crisis for years and feel they've been ignored. It's sad that it's taken managers so long to acknowledge the state of the health service. Our members are disappointed that there is an attempt to point the finger of blame at the nurses, who have held the service together for so long."
Unions are campaigning for health officials to take action to address a chronic lack of staff across the NHS, which is playing a significant role in the spiralling hospital waiting list crisis. They also want pay parity with their colleagues in Great Britain.
The Department of Health has said it cannot reverse the position on pay parity because there is no health minister in place.
Secretary of State Julian Smith has refused to step in and the DUP and Sinn Fein have not yet reached an agreement to return to government.
On Monday night the permanent secretary of the Department of Health issued a statement in which he appealed to the unions to return to the negotiating table.
But in a further blow to health officials, the local Royal College of Midwives (RCM) announced it would ballot members on industrial action which will run until January 29.
RCM NI director Karen Murray said: "The decision to take strike action is never taken lightly.
"It is borne of frustration over the lack of progress of talks with the Department of Health, talks which have gone on many months."
Public service union Nipsa, which represents 9,500 people who work primarily across health and social services, administration and nursing, has also revealed plans for strike action in coming weeks.
A spokesman said the organisation was consulting with members with the intention of beginning strike action as soon as next Monday.
While today's action is expected to lead to disruption of services, the planned strikes on Friday are likely to have a more significant impact.