Belfast Telegraph

Strike off: Unions suspend healthcare action to consider Stormont offer

Unison and RCN positive over deal on table

Jonathan Bell

Jonathan Bell

Unison and the Royal College of Nursing have announced the suspension of healthcare strikes in order to ballot members on the deal offered by the Department of Health.

Unison is recommending the offer on the table be accepted.

Health Minister Robin Swann welcomed the announcement.

Meanwhile, NIPSA has rejected the health minister's proposals on safe staffing, saying no financial commitment was made, no timescale was offered and no shortfalls in social care were addressed.

Mr Swann paid tribute to healthcare workers for the "great work they do".

He said: “This has been a very difficult time but I believe everyone across the health and social care system can now move forward together.

"As I said in the Assembly, this whole situation not only put our health workers in an invidious position but our officials too.

“It needed a minister and an Executive to secure a resolution, and I am delighted that we have achieved it in our first week."

A number of health unions have been engaged in industrial action over recent months. They were joined by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) which took to picket lines for the first time in its over 100-year history.

Thousands took to picket lines across Northern Ireland.

With the resumption of power sharing, new Health Minister Robin Swann was quick to announce a breakthrough in talks with unions, offering pay parity with workers in the rest of the UK and proposing measures to address concerns on staffing levels and conditions.

Unions were urged to suspend their strikes in order to avoid health trusts having to put in place contingency plans for the next planned walkout.

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Pat Cullen with health staff outside the Mater Hospital

The RCN met on Thursday and announced the decision to suspend its action. It is to put the offer to its members.

Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland said it had been a "long and difficult road for nurses" in reaching this point.

"Our members finally have something concrete to consider in relation to both the restoration of pay parity and safe staffing," she said.

"The progress this week is testament to having political leadership in place following three years of standing still.

“On behalf of our members, we would like to thank Health Minister Robin Swann MLA for taking seriously the concerns of nursing staff and for having the willingness to listen and take meaningful action in a short space of time. We know this action was also backed by our First and Deputy First Ministers.

“We firmly believe this movement towards a better and more sustainable health and social care service is because the voice of nursing not just spoke up but was heard."

On Thursday morning Robin Swann said he was hoping for a good day for the health service.

"A sincere and personal thanks to everyone involved in yesterday’s intensive discussions aimed at resolving the dispute," he added.

Pat Cullen said she was "immensely proud of the steadfastness and determination that nurses have shown in order to improve conditions".

"Not just for nurses, but for patients who have been subjected to longer waiting lists and delayed care for long enough. This dispute always focused not just on pay, but on ensuring that we have the right numbers of nurses in the right places, to provide the care and treatment required.

"Our next step will be to consult our members in Northern Ireland in relation to the offer on pay parity and safe staffing.”

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The nurses’ strike combined with the political nous of Simon Coveney and Julian Smith played a key role in ending the political stalemate at Stormont

Unison head of bargaining Anne Speed, the lead Trade Union negotiator said its decision to suspend the strike action came after intensive negotiations.

"We are now balloting our membership with a recommendation to accept. Our industrial action is suspended for the duration of the ballot," she said.

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary added: “While we are heartened that our new health minister and the Executive have kept their word, there are two groups in this society that really deserve the credit for getting us close to the resolution of this dispute. Our members have shown incredible determination and compassion and the public have been unswerving in their support.

"Over the past seven weeks our 26,000 members in the health service have each played a crucial role in the action. Thousands of them have also taken direct strike action at great personal cost.

"Their action has not been easy. No one simply walked away and closed the doors behind them. Instead they have spent weeks engaging with their employers on the detailed work of ensuring emergency cover and protection for the most vulnerable patients."

She added: "The public have supported them throughout, despite enduring thousands of cancellations in a health system bursting at the seams. They understood that someone had to call a halt to the rapid decline of our vital health and social services system. On behalf of all Unison members I extend our heartfelt gratitude to them.

"That this dispute put incredible pressure on our elected politicians is without doubt. That it was cynically used as leverage by the UK Government is also self-evident. It has played a critical role in the return of devolved government and it has rightfully placed the health and wellbeing of the People of Northern Ireland back the top of the political agenda.

"We believe that we will have a positive response from our members. We are determined to get back to the core business of tending to the health needs of our people. This time we expect to be listened to and to play a full role in re-building our health service for the future.”

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