Belfast Telegraph

UUP's Aiken urges Northern Ireland Secretary to intervene immediately with health crisis set to worsen

Health workers on the picket line at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald.
Health workers on the picket line at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald.
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

UUP leader Steve Aiken has urged the Secretary of State Julian Smith to intervene immediately to resolve the deepening crisis in Northern Ireland’s health service. 

In a letter, Mr Aiken called on Mr Smith to “try to restore some much needed control and leadership” as health staff prepare for another week of industrial action over pay disputes and concerns over patient safety.

Mr Smith met with union representatives last Thursday and said he was available this weekend to continue to facilitate talks in a bid to break the deadlock between health bosses and unions.

However, he has stopped short of saying whether he will take the matter to the Treasury to seek additional funding in order that healthcare staff in Northern Ireland achieve pay parity with their GB counterparts.

Mr Smith has insisted that the NHS crisis is a matter that only local politicians can handle, describing the ongoing absence of a health minister and devolved government amid the crisis as “unacceptable”.

A new pay offer put forward by the Department of Health has been rejected by the health unions.

As the row rumbles on, Mr Aiken said this coming week looks set to be even more challenging.

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He said: “With the failure to produce a pay offer that meets the needs of health workers, it is now inevitable that there will again be significant disruption across a range of core health and social care services.”

The South Antrim MLA added: “I have spoken to countless health workers in recent days and not one of them has said they want to be taking this industrial action – yet their goodwill was pushed to its absolute limit over recent years and that is why they have been left with no choice but to take this stand. 

“Even before this latest industrial action the health service was already in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

UUP leader Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA)
UUP leader Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA)

“With so many patients being forced to wait for so long, some were unquestionably coming to harm.

“The Secretary of State must urgently realise the gravity of the situation that Northern Ireland is now facing.

“No longer can he continue to sit in Government but fail in his duties and responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland.

“That is why I have again written to ask for him to intervene directly to resolve the disparity in pay for local health workers and to declare a state of emergency in our health service.”

The full text of Mr Aiken’s letter reads:

Dear Secretary of State,

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (Liam McBurney/PA)
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (Liam McBurney/PA)

I do not need to tell you of the crisis that the Northern Ireland health service is now in. Never before in the history of the NHS here have so many people been waiting, and waiting for so long.

I am sure that you will agree with me that it has only been for the dedication and sheer tenacity of our health workers over recent years that has prevented the situation becoming much more serious.

However, even now our staff are saying they are no longer able to continue to provide safe and sustainable care.

For too long unsafe staffing levels have been tolerated rather than rectified, leading to the shocking 7,500 vacancies currently across the local HSC system.

Now, following subsequent pay awards at Westminster, not only are our staff here in Northern Ireland working harder than anywhere else, but they’re also getting paid much less than anywhere else.

Given staff here work to the same standards as their counterparts in Great Britain they should be valued the same as their counterparts in Great Britain.

Whilst I am aware that you have met with a number of the trade union representatives, unfortunately the Departments of Health and Finance later in the day produced only an insufficient offer.

That has left relations even more soured, if even possible. 

With further disruption expected across all the Trusts in coming weeks, with likely severe disruption to outpatient activity and elective surgery, I trust you will agree that this is a wholly untenable situation.

I would now urge you to intervene to try to restore some much needed control and leadership.

As I have previously written – for which I am still awaiting a response – there is a healthcare emergency in Northern Ireland.

If you were to intervene and instruct a new pay offer be made that definitively removes the disparity in pay, it would be one step towards resolving what we can all agree is a rapidly escalating emergency in our health service.

I urge you to do so.

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