Trade union Unison is currently in “discussions” about arranging fuel cards for health staff following the health minister’s announcement on increased mileage rates, but stressed that “what workers need is a decent pay rise”.
On Thursday, Robin Swann promised a rate rise which will apply to work-related car travel by Agenda for Change (AfC) staff, including trust-employed domiciliary care workers and district nurses.
The current rates are 56p per mile for the first 3,500 miles, and 20p per mile for each mile thereafter.
The health minister is to increase the rate paid for mileage incurred above 3,500 miles to 30p per mile, for an initial six-month period, which will then be reviewed.
Trade union Unison said “it is expected hard bargaining at a UK level will take place for a more sustained overhaul of the existing allowances”.
"In the meantime interim adjustments have had to be implemented in Scotland and Wales and now in Northern Ireland,” a statement added.
“Discussions are now underway to arrange the use of fuel cards and we are awaiting further information. There cannot be any delay in getting this support directly to staff who urgently need the means to keep their vehicles on the road while doing their job.
“What workers need is a decent pay rise. Unison across the UK is preparing for a sustained autumn campaign up to and including industrial action to achieve our goals.”
The Department of Health said that “paying this increased rate through staff payroll systems will take some time to implement, although payments will be backdated”.
"In the interim, trusts are being asked to explore issuing fuel cards to eligible staff when they reach the 3,500 mile threshold.”
Health minister Robin Swann said: “I have taken this decision after careful consideration of options prepared by officials in recent weeks.
“I need to reiterate that every decision I make to allocate additional monies is taken at risk at present. I do not have a finalised budget and funding pressures in health may be significant by the second half of this financial year.
“I am very mindful of the cost of living pressures on health and social care staff and across the wider community. While I am pleased to confirm this mileage rate increase, I would also stress that a sustained and funded cross-departmental approach is the best way to address cost of living issues and provide our citizens with the support they need.”
The decision comes following recent calls from trade unions and politicians across all main parties to increase the mileage rate for health workers.
Sinn Fein MLA Carál Ní Chuilín welcomed the minister’s announcement, but added that “this intervention won't help the many care workers working in the independent sector and for agencies who will continue to struggle to fill their cars”.
“No workers, particularly those providing vital care in the community, should be faced with having to consider whether they can afford to go to work,” she said.
“Health is a priority for Sinn Féin, we need an Executive up and running today so we can get on with the job of investing an extra £1 billion in the health service to recruit more doctors and nurses, cut waiting lists and transform health.”
On Monday, DUP MP Carla Lockhart urged the health minister to “act with urgency”, commenting that “a year ago, in June of 2021, unleaded prices sat at around 130.5 p/litre. Diesel prices were around 133.0 p/litre. In one year, the cost of a tank of fuel has risen by a third”.