Unison strike ballot could see Northern Ireland health service grind to halt
The health service in Northern Ireland is edging closer to crippling strike action by tens of thousands of NHS employees.
In a devastating blow to health officials, public service union Unison is preparing to ballot its members over whether they want to strike after eight months of pay talks with the Department of Health broke down without an agreement.
The vote will open on Monday and will be sent out to all Unison health service employees, including nurses, paramedics, domestic staff, porters, catering staff, medical secretaries, care assistants, occupational therapists and physiotherapists.
It comes at the same time as health bosses are facing the possibility of a walk-out by Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members and as consultants slash the amount of overtime they work in a row over pensions.
If RCN and Unison members vote in favour of industrial action, co-ordinated walk-outs and work-to-rule regimes could begin within a matter of weeks, coinciding with winter pressures when the health service faces its busiest period of the year.
Anne Speed, head of bargaining at Unison, said: "Our members are paid less than their counterparts in the rest of the UK and have said to us very clearly that enough is enough.
"The health service is in a deepening crisis and our members are not responsible for any of it. In fact, they've been propping up the service and the goodwill has run out and I'd very surprised if we don't get a mandate for industrial action."
The planned ballot has been revealed just two days after the Department of Health's Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly, said he does not have enough money to run the service.
Speaking at a Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy conference in Belfast, Mr Pengelly said: "I have stated that my department does not have the money to do everything we are being asked to do.
"Why wouldn't I want to reduce waiting lists, increase pay for hard-pressed staff and reduce the pressure on those staff by recruiting and training more colleagues?
"Why wouldn't I want to improve mental health provision and focus on suicide prevention, commission new drugs for patients with cancer and other serious conditions?
"The truth is I simply can't afford to do all these things - in fact, I can't afford to do all the things we currently do."
However, Ms Speed criticised the comments and said it is an unacceptable attitude.
"It's not good enough for him to just throw his hands up and say nothing can be done," she said. "Can you imagine a nurse throwing their hands up and telling a patient they can't help and telling them to go home? It would just never happen.
"At the moment, we have the trusts spending millions of pounds every year bringing agency nursing staff in to fill vacant shifts when this money should be invested in the service.
"This is public money they're using, it's a crazy situation and it's demoralising for staff.
"If money can be found to pay higher rates to agency staff, then the money can be found to give health service employees a proper pay rise."
The RCN opened its ballot, an unprecedented move by the organisation, on October 9 and the results are expected on November 7.
It made the decision to seek members' opinion on strike action after nurses repeatedly warned patients' lives are at risk under current working conditions.
The number of vacant nursing posts in Northern Ireland has risen from 1,200 in 2017 to 3,000 this year.
Meanwhile, the Unison ballot will run for three weeks, with the results due to be announced by November 12.
Ms Speed said she expects any industrial action by Unison to begin before December, which is likely to coincide with industrial action by RCN members.
At the same, Northern Ireland's waiting lists - already the highest in the UK - are growing further as consultants are cutting back on the overtime they work.
Changes to pension rules in 2016 mean rising numbers of consultants are receiving large bills linked to the value of their pension.
Some hospital doctors have even reported having to re-mortgage their homes to cover the cost.
As a result, much of the overtime used to try and prevent waiting lists from spiralling further out of control has ceased.