Editor's Viewpoint: Treatment of nurses is difficult to justify
With the health service in Northern Ireland already under severe pressure, a further crisis is looming as the Royal College of Nursing prepares to ballot members for the first time ever on strike action. If the ballot opts for industrial action it could begin in December, just as the annual winter pressures begin to build.
But this time there is an added factor which could make any strike action even more problematic for the NHS.
The province could have left the EU by that stage and a leaked government document warned that up to 1,000 NHS staff may be unable to get to work or would leave the service completely in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Nurses through the years have been extremely tolerant in industrial relations, prioritising their care of patients above other considerations, but their patience is at breaking point as they see their peers in other parts of the UK being better rewarded for doing the same job.
That comes against a background of 3,000 vacancies for nurses in the NHS and a similar number in care homes in the province. This has meant nurses having to go the extra mile as a matter of routine just to keep the service functioning. The answer by the five health trusts to the shortage of nurses in the province is to hire agency nurses at hugely inflated rates. In September last year, it was reported that the five health trusts had spent £12m in the previous 12 months recruiting nurses from a Scottish agency.
That led to the farcical situation where an NHS-employed staff nurse earning around £16 an hour could be working alongside an agency nurse earning up to £60 a hour, or even more if they had specialist skills.
It is difficult to justify how nurses in Northern Ireland have been treated - the union says the real value of their income has fallen by 15% in the last eight years. Nurses are the backbone of the health service and with their increasing skill levels are deserving of commensurate reward.
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Strike action however must be a decision of last resort and there is still time for trusts and nurses to reach an agreement.
This is yet another problem which should be dealt with by a Health Minister and the irony of stay-away politicians still being paid for not working while nurses doing an evermore demanding job at the coalface of the health service are being short-changed will be lost on no one.