Health staff tell UTV the NHS needs fixing as they strike for better pay and working conditions

Striking healthcare workers on the picket line in Belfast. Credit: Presseye

Over 25,000 healthcare workers have taken to the picket lines across Northern Ireland today.

The strike action by Nipsa, Unison and Unite unions comes in a row over pay and conditions and involves 24 hour action.

Paramedics were also among the workers taking part as they press for safe staffing, better pay and improved mileage allowances.

There was previous strike action on December 12 and more dates are set for February.

UTV spoke to many healthcare staff on the picket lines on Thursday, the first outside Craigavon Area Hospital.

51-year-old Sarah Breen on the picket line at Craigavon Area Hospital on Thursday Credit: UTV

Sarah Breen, 51, is an MRI radiographer's assistant.

She has worked in the health service for 33 years and says the current pressures are the worst she has ever experienced:

"There's not enough hours in the day ... sorry I'm quite emotional because I don't want to be standing here, I work in the hospital to look after people that's my main goal, we're not able to look after people anymore the way it is.

"I am so sorry for being emotional but there's not one of us here want to be standing here at the minute.

"The pressures in the hospital, I just can't take anymore, patients are not being seen, patients are not being cared for, patients are not being scanned, staff can't do it anymore they're tired and they've had enough."

Sarah has worked for the NHS since she was 18 and began her career in Lurgan hospital as a nursing auxiliary and care of the elderly in 1990.

She told UTV she is exhausted by the constant pressure on the system: "I'm tired.

"I am 51; I've worked there for 33 years, it's really, really, really bad at the minute.

"ED's full, they're not coping, we worked through the height of covid we were told that we weren't doing scans, MRI is on the corridor to ICU, we saw what passed our doors to get to ICU, the people that are working in the hospital can't do it anymore."

The 51-year-old was standing on the picket line with her colleagues discussing the cost of living crisis.

Nurses and healthcare staff are calling for what one described as an 'inflation-busting' pay rise.

Sarah said she is already struggling: "In 33 years my pay hasn't went up that much and I'm going to struggle when it comes to pension age, I'm going to do my 40 years but I'm going to struggle to pay my bills.

"I have two grown up boys and three grandchildren, my grandson was treated in ED a few weeks ago, with children so sick and there wasn't the staff there to look after them and they did over and above.

"I wouldn't be afraid to let any member of my family come and be treated at Craigavon hospital because it's a good hospital, they can't do anymore than what they're doing at the minute and what their staffing levels are allowing us to do and it's dangerous, it's getting dangerous."

Sarah said she fears for the future of the NHS: "I have three grandchildren and I'm worried now what their future is; are they going to have a health service?

"I don't think so."

In recent months hospitals have been under sustained pressure, especially in emergency departments.

A few weeks ago the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Health Professor Ian Young warned they had not yet reached their peak.

Meanwhile, the Permanent Secretary to the Department of Health told UTV he could not rule out the possibility of another winter under the same intense strain.

The strikes come on a day when the Department of Health released emergency care waiting time statistics.

They showed a 12% rise in attendances at emergency departments in Northern Ireland in December 2022 compared to December 2021.

During December 2022 Altnagelvin Area reported the longest median time spent in ED from arrival to admission at almost 20 hours.

Gillian Carnduff is a tissue viability nurse within the southern trust.

She has experience in emergency care and likened the emergency department at Craigavon to 'a warzone.'

Having been in nursing for 25 years, she has worked in all areas from acute medicine to outpatients.

She has now been a tissue viability nurse for 18 years and says she would never consider another profession: "I really love nursing it is a vocation and a career that I've chosen and I love being in it but we have got a retention problem within this trust and other areas.

"Nurses are leaving to go to other areas in the mainland UK and also emigrating to other areas like Australia because they get better pay and conditions and recognition for what they do."

Gillian Carnduff Credit: UTV

Ciara Creaney, also an MRI radiographer's assistant, says the NHS is 'broken and needs fixed'.

She has been working in her current post for nine years and says her wages have only increased marginally: "I'm here today because from I started in the trust my pay hasn't really changed much, we're constantly fighting to try and pay our bills because everything's going up, we're having to work overtime, we're having to work extra shifts.

"We're trying to help and keep the NHS running as it is, the service that we're used to, but it's getting out of control and we can't offer the service we're used to.

"I don't know what needs to change but something has to change and one of it is trying to get staff to stay and one of the main reasons to get staff to stay is the money.

"I honestly don't see how the NHS can continue the way it is, it's broken, it's broken everywhere and it needs fixed, how they fix it I don't know but it can't sustain itself the way it is right now."

Meanwhile, on the picket lines at Altnagelvin Hospital John Havard who is the ED Reception Manager explained why he was there with his colleagues:

"We're striking for three reasons, for pay, safe staffing and travel reimbursement.

"The pay might be an obvious one, we haven't had a decent pay rise in years we need an inflation-busting pay rise to bring us up to a reasonable amount of mone.

"That's tied into safe staffing, all staff in all disciplines are working under incredible pressures and it's getting more and more unsafe."

Unions have been calling on the Secretary of State to intervene in the absence of an Executive.

On Thursday representatives from UNISON and NIPSA gave a letter addressed to Chris Heaton Harris to a representative from the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast.

Maura McKenna from UNISON said they are demanding action:

"We are handing in this letter because you know the Secretary of State is sitting in the [United] States when he should be here looking at issues that involve Northern Ireland."

"Our health workers are all out on strike and he needs to listen to us, he hasn't responded to any requests for meetings to identify what can be done and what should be done to ensure that we have proper staffing levels, that we have people on proper pay.

"Because it's got to the stage now...people are deciding what luxuries to get and those luxuries are food or heating."

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