Northern Ireland doctors support nurses strike over pay and safer working conditions

The former health minister has called on the Secretary of State to match the pay award which nurses in other parts of the UK have already received, ahead of potential strike action by the Royal College of Nursing.

In a statement issued on Monday afternoon Robin Swann revealed he has written to Chris Heaton-Harris calling on him to award the agreed pay increase.

In the letter Mr Swann said he has ''witnessed first-hand the real damage that political instability was inflicting on our most important public services.''

He added that the ''most compelling argument'' of the nurses taking part in any industrial action was that ''staff in Northern Ireland were being paid less than their counterparts anywhere else across the United Kingdom.'' 

The Department of Health has said it is preparing for the strike which is expected to be announced on Wednesday.

In a statement a spokesperson for the department, which is now being run by civil servants, said it ''continues to work with Health Trusts and wider HSC partners to prepare for all scenarios in what is anticipated to be a very challenging winter period.''

''As part of this, the department will work with trade unions to understand the impact of potential strike action and how critical services can be protected.”

The spokesperson said the department remains committed to implementing the awards when it is in a position to do so.

This forthcoming walk out - if called - represents an escalation - as it will be the Royal College of Nursing's first UK-wide strike.

In a tweet at the weekend the RCN chief executive Pat Cullen said: "I am really confident about our results and signs are that members have spoken very clearly across the UK."

In a statement issued on Monday Ms Cullen added: “Patients are at great risk when there aren’t enough nurses. Huge numbers of staff – both experienced and newer recruits – are deciding they cannot see a future in a nursing profession that is not valued nor treated fairly.

“Our strike action will be as much for patients as it is for nurses – we have their support in doing this. As we begin action, politicians in every part of the UK will be challenged to back their nursing staff and understand the strength of public support.”

Professor Deirdre Heenan, who helped carry out a major review of the health service in Northern Ireland, said urgent action is required to show the government values the nursing profession.

''This strike action is a symptom of a health and social care system out of control. Nurses worked during covid. They've experienced things no-one should have to witness but they were promised things would be better,''she said.

''There's no sign of change so they have been left with no option but to go on strike. It's not just about pay, it's about patient safety. In many ways the moral issue is that nurses are there to advocate for the patients and they don't want them to get a third class service.''

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland said they have always supported our nursing colleagues and still do.

"We've known about this, there was an inevitability about it. We have always our nursing colleagues and we support them in getting better safer working conditions and pay," he said.

Nurses last went on strike in Northern Ireland in December 2019 and January 2020 during the previous power vacuum at Stormont.

The nursing union has not yet revealed how it will co-ordinate this national strike but it is believed the walk out will not impact emergency departments.

UNISON and NIPSA, which represent thousands of workers in other areas of the health service, are also carrying out ballots among their members here.

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