Belfast Telegraph

Lisa Smyth: Strike isn't about lining nurses' pockets, it's investing in a service we rely on

Pat Cullen is the director of the Royal College of Nursing NI
Pat Cullen is the director of the Royal College of Nursing NI

By Lisa Smyth

The result of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) ballot is significant for a number of reasons.

It is the first time in the 103-year history of the organisation that members have been asked to consider the possibility of industrial action.

There are a range of medical unions that represent health professionals across the NHS, and the RCN is generally considered one of the less militant.

The decision to ballot members was not taken lightly - it wasn't a knee-jerk reaction.

Conscious of the increasingly intolerable working conditions nurses are facing, the organisation held a series of roadshows this year to gauge the mood of members. The first of these, in Antrim, highlighted how difficult it is becoming for nurses to deliver even the most basic of care and ensure the safety of patients.

And so the historic decision was taken to ballot members on industrial action.

Much has been made, mainly by the employers, about the fact that the turnout for the vote stands at 43.3%.

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And while this might not be a majority, it is still an impressive turnout for a postal vote and an overwhelming majority of respondents - 92% in fact - voted in favour of strike action.

The Department of Health has also been at pains to argue it doesn't have the cash or the power to meet the demands of the unions.

It is true that their hands are tied to a certain extent by the lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland.

But this situation has been developing since long before the collapse of the Assembly, with health professionals long warning that we are heading for a crisis.

Furthermore, health chiefs have been able to find £43m to pay just one nursing agency provider over the past five years.

Why was this money not invested in staff instead?

Then there is the argument that industrial action will bring patients to harm.

There have been warnings that a deadly flu epidemic could be on its way, hundreds of thousands of patients are already facing indefinite waits for treatment, and a Westminster committee has warned the NHS here is on the brink of collapse.

Surely a strike is only going to create more misery?

However, nursing is first and foremost a caring profession, for many it is a vocation, a calling.

In fact, it is down to the sheer hard work and dedication of our nurses that the health service still continues to function.

The notion that thousands of nurses are going to down tools next week and watch as their patients die in front of them is absurd.

Industrial action could be as simple as nurses refusing to carry out housekeeping duties or spending hours filling in forms that are not directly related to patient care.

For far too long health bosses have been relying upon nurses to carry out these tasks and prop up an ailing health service as it limps from one crisis to the next.

They are expected to work 12-hour shifts, frequently without a break, many working beyond their finish time to ensure their tasks are completed.

They do all this knowing their counterparts in the rest of the UK are being paid significantly more money.

Many nurses are forced to work overtime, take a second job, some even rely on food banks to feed their families.

Taking all this into consideration, as well as the failure by health officials to implement a proper workforce strategy, it is little wonder there are 2,900 vacant nursing posts in Northern Ireland.

In fact, given the conditions they endure on a daily basis, it's a wonder any nurses turn up for work at all.

No-one should regard a proper pay rise as simply lining nurses' pockets - instead look at it as investing in and safeguarding the future of the health service for everyone.

Belfast Telegraph

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