Nurses expected to cancel strike after pay and staff vow
Crippling strike action by nurses planned for Monday looks set to be called off after a government promise to address staffing shortages.
The health unions are waiting for a formal offer on pay parity and increasing staff numbers from the new Health Minister at Stormont before making a final decision.
However, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) on Tuesday night described a meeting with Robin Swann as "positive".
Unison also welcomed its "constructive" talks with the UUP MLA.
Both unions are due to meet separately tomorrow to discuss the offer from the Department of Health.
It comes after Mr Swann said he would make available the extra £30m needed to meet unions' demands over pay, which will bring workers into line with the rest of the UK.
However, it has emerged the money has not yet been given to the Department of Health by Westminster to help the Executive meet a key pledge of the New Decade, New Approach document.
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Speaking to the Assembly yesterday, former UUP leader Mr Swann said: "I should clarify that the funding of the £30m cost of the move to parity in the current year is to be financed by drawing forward proposed allocations for future years.
"So, while I am glad that it is not impacting on the funds available for other services this year, it is important to note that it has not been financed by an additional allocation to Northern Ireland."
Despite this, Unison and the RCN have indicated they believe a deal between workers and the Department of Health can be reached.
Mr Swann has just four days to stop further 12-hour strike action by the RCN.
The other unions are continuing with work-to-rule protocols for members.
Anne Speed, Unison's head of bargaining and representation, said last night: "We genuinely hope that justice for our members and patients alike is imminent.
"Their courage and tenacity has put the health and wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland at the heart of a new political agenda.
"We remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached and that our dispute can be resolved."
RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen added: "We are pleased that the minister has listened carefully and responded quickly to our concerns and that the situation in relation to pay parity has now been resolved.
"We are also satisfied that real progress has been made in relation to safe staffing and recruitment and retention of nursing staff.
"The minister has committed to a costed implementation plan for safe staffing within an agreed short period.
"There is a long way to go and we will work closely with the minister and the Department of Health to find a sustainable way forward.
"We are immensely grateful to our members, who have stood up for patients and nursing during this difficult period of industrial action.
Speaking to this newspaper yesterday on a visit to the Ulster Hospital, where he met with some of the staff keeping the health service afloat, Mr Swann said: "When I got up on Saturday, I didn't think this would be a title I'd be carrying today.
"This is not an opportunity or a challenge that my party could have passed. We were committed that if health was on the table, we would take it.
"The fact that we got to this stage where the nurses had to go on to the picket lines was regrettable. It was a disgrace that we got to a place in Northern Ireland where the nurses and the health service workers had to take the action we have seen.
"I would ask the unions to work with me. I stood with them on the picket line in December and I will stand with them as Health Minister.
"They have shown a lot of patience. Nurses waited 104 years before going on strike. We should never have got to that point. I will be doing my best not to let them down. We have made a statement today. I'm going to be in it for the long term."