Belfast Telegraph

Tensions high as health workers make feelings known on picket lines across Northern Ireland

Workers stage a strike outside the Ulster Hospital yesterday
Workers stage a strike outside the Ulster Hospital yesterday
John Murray, Ruth Watkins and Victor Murphy
Paul Flynn and Ben Crudden
Nurses Carla Erskine, Kathy McMahon and Alison Tyrell
Ivan Magill
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

If anyone had doubts about why thousands of health workers across Northern Ireland are taking to the picket lines, the clue is in the name of their employer - the National Health Service.

A national service, with national standards - and that, according to Unison branch secretary at Belfast City Hospital Ivan Magill is why salaries should be on a par with what's on offer in England, Scotland and Wales.

Organising the first day of action at Belfast City Hospital yesterday, he said the level of frustration has reached breaking point.

"We have three weeks of action ahead and that's just the start," he said.

"We're very conscious that we don't put anyone at risk, but we've been forced into this.

"We have to take a stand. We work in a national health service, and national is the key word here.

"Yet, we are paid differently. That's not right. When our Northern Ireland MPs go to Westminster they're paid the same as MPs from elsewhere.

"We've been left behind as the poor relations. People are angry.

"Why should they be treated any differently?"

He said the amount of money being paid out by local health trusts on agency fees to fill in gaps in the service had left employees shocked.

Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph revealed spending has surged by 160% since 2015, and is on course to hit £230m this year.

"A quarter of that money would sort the pay issue," he said.

"Management is spending more money on a lesser service and that needs to stop."

The strike action began yesterday across Northern Ireland's five hospital trusts after pay talks between management and unions broke down without agreement on Friday.

"They should remember that their responsibility is to the public that they serve and their workforce."

John Murray, co-chair of Unison's Belfast branch, said there was disappointment that, by the end of the lunchtime protest, only two politicians had turned out to meet staff.

"The SDLP and People for Profit have appeared, but no-one from the south Belfast area has been here yet," he said.

"Where are our politicians? Where is our executive at Stormont?

"We've had enough of the extravagant amount of money being paid in to private pockets, not invested in the service. It's demoralising," he said. "I have two relatives who have moved across the water to do the same job for better pay. That's not acceptable."

Victor Murphy is co-chair of Unison Retired Members.

"I don't mind saying that I'm a Protestant who supports the Irish language, but our politicians need to get the priorities right here," he said.

"The Department of Health and management have been sleepwalking on this. Pure bad management."

Supporting fellow workers were Alison Tyrell, Cathy McMahon and Carla Erskine, all employed in the renal unit at the City Hospital.

They said the amount of money being paid to agencies by the trusts has hurt staff.

"It belittles the nurses working on the ward who tend to be more highly skilled in their area," said Ms Tyrell.

"Agency staff are getting paid more for less," said Ms McMahon.

"Agency nurses might make up the numbers, but the level of care just can't be the same."

Ms Erskine agreed. "It doesn't add up and just leaves staff angry," she said.

Paul Flynn and Ben Crudden both work in the decontamination unit at the City Hospital.

"We have the same jobs as the rest of the UK, we deserve the same pay," said Mr Flynn.

"It's disheartening to see agency staff get sometimes double the money when we are the ones doing the job day in day out."

Mr Crudden has been working for Belfast Trust for five years and has already seen conditions deteriorate. "It's been getting worse," he said.

"We're kept busier and busier for nothing extra, then we see agency fees going through the roof.

"Departments like ours go unnoticed but we're all in this together.

"Everyone will see the support we have over the next couple of weeks."

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