Talks bid to avert crippling health walk-outs in Northern Ireland
The Secretary of State has met with senior civil servants to try and bring an end to crippling industrial action by NHS staff, it is understood.
With just 24 hours before tens of thousands of health service employees stage walk-outs, it is believed Julian Smith has held talks with David Sterling, the head of the Civil Service, and the Department of Health's permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly.
Finding a resolution to the ongoing dispute with health service unions was one of the items on the agenda, it is understood.
There is expected to be widespread disruption to the health service tomorrow as a result of the planned strikes by the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, Unite and Nipsa.
The unions have exempted a number of services, including chemotherapy treatments, intensive care units and immediately life-threatening calls to the NI Ambulance Service (NIAS).
However, fears are growing that emergency departments (ED) - already struggling to cope with demand - may be one of the vital services severely affected.
Unison has issued guidance to its paramedics ahead of the action, which said that the chief executive of the NIAS had given an assurance that it will not upgrade calls when not required in order to minimise the impact of the strike. It added: "It is impossible to legislate for every circumstance, but we request that all members irrespective of grade act in a manner to protect patients from suffering harm."
The chief executives of the health trusts issued a second joint statement last night ahead of Wednesday's strike action.
It said: "Tomorrow will be a very challenging day for the health and social care system in Northern Ireland and the people we serve.
"We know our colleagues who are taking industrial action are not doing so lightly.
"We are doing all that we can to mitigate the risks posed by the forthcoming industrial action but collectively we have real concerns about the potential for harm to patients and service users in the next few days and in the period running into Christmas. This is already proving to be a very challenging winter and, even without industrial action, we have started this week in a more difficult position than at the same time last year, due to a significant rise in ED attendances and hospital admissions.
"These pressures and the impact of industrial action mean that patients and service users will inevitably wait longer for diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care. We sincerely apologise to them and their relatives and recognise that this is an intolerable situation."
The statement also said that NHS employees and civil servants cannot resolve the issues facing the health service and called for "sustained investment, political leadership and budgetary certainty".
Meanwhile, the unions last night vowed to continue with the strike action unless they are provided with a definitive offer of pay parity before tomorrow.
There have been no further negotiations between the Department of Health and the unions since talks broke down without agreement on December 5.
An impasse was reached after Mr Pengelly said he cannot afford to meet the demands of the unions, while Mr Smith has insisted the matter can only be dealt with by a reformed Executive and health minister.
Unison's regional secretary Patricia McKeown said last night: "We wrote to the leaders of the five main parties on December 13 calling on them to make clear a collective statement that they support the restoration of pay parity and that this dispute should be resolved immediately, regardless of whether an Executive is to be formed or not.
"We await action from them."
She added: "Our dispute continues and we are set to take industrial action alongside other unions on Wednesday.
"We have rejected the Department of Health's proposals up to now as they do not restore pay parity.
"The Department of Health has tabled no new proposals to us. We will not allow our members, patients or the public to be used as any form of political leverage in an attempt to restore the devolved institutions at Stormont."
The Department of Health declined to comment on the discussions between civil servants in the run-up to the strikes.