Health strikes paused as unions agree to meet Northern Ireland Secretary of State

Health workers have paused strike action in Northern Ireland ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State Chris Heaton Harris.

They had been due to take to picket lines on Monday.

A joint statement from Unison, Nipsa and the RCM said: "The three unions consulting with their respective committees have agreed to this meeting and submitted an agenda of key issues to be addressed.

"The unions will pause strike action in advance of the meeting."

Healthcare workers from across Northern Ireland took to the picket line on Friday over their pay, which they say continues to fall short of their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Unison and Nipsa members, including the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service , took to the streets outside City Hall in Belfast on Monday to make their grievances over ongoing pay disputes known.

The Ambulance Service urged the public to only call 999 in the case of an urgent life-threatening condition.

Workers across the public sector have been taking industrial action in recent months over concerns that wages are not matching the rate of inflation.

NHS England workers received a pay offer earlier in March but Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris is responsible for the budget in Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning executive.

In a statement, Unison welcomed the announcement of a meeting with the Northern Ireland Office.

"After four months of industrial action including four full-day strikes across the health and social services system, the determination of health workers has finally brought the government to the negotiating table.

"The Secretary of State, Department of Health and Health Trade Union Negotiators will now meet on Wednesday.

"On foot of this offer to meet, Unison has demanded confirmation that such a meeting will be a genuine engagement and will result in negotiation to produce a meaningful offer which we can take to our members.  

"We expect nothing less from this engagement and while we will not stand down our action short of strike and will continue with today's strike action,  our health committee is prepared to pause next Monday's planned 24 hour strike to enable talks to take place.

Patricia McKeown Unison Regional Secretary said: "Our members determination to escalate strike action today and again on Monday finally got the message through to those in power.  

"Health workers across Northern Ireland will not be left behind.  

"The mood of strikers at Belfast City Hall this morning, outside the Secretary of State's office and on picket lines across Northern Ireland is one of utter determination to secure their rights.   

"They never take industrial action lightly.  They care about our health and social services and the public they serve but they have been driven to the brink.

"The message now is equally clear - This must be real or the strike action will escalate."

Rita Devlin, Director of the RCN in Northern Ireland said: “Nursing staff working in Northern Ireland have been angry and frustrated at the continuing lack of clarity in relation to a pay offer for health care staff in Northern Ireland alongside the worsening conditions being experienced by both patients and staff across all areas of health and social care.

“Following a meeting earlier this week with the Department of Health we were no further forward and requested a meeting with the Secretary of State as a matter of urgency.

"We are pleased that Chris Heaton-Harris has now agreed to meet the RCN and other health unions.

“It is clear that the absence of devolved institutions is having a devastating impact, not only on the staff who are working hard to deliver health and social care to the people of Northern Ireland, but on the services themselves, many of which face uncertainty due to the continuing political impasse.

"It is a scandal that here we are on 31 March – the end of the financial year – with no budget for health and no pay rise for health workers.

Karen Murray, RCM Director for Northern Ireland, said: “This offer to negotiate has happened because our members and those in other unions have taken a stand for better care for women, for better working conditions, and decent pay. 

"Though being done with a heavy heart, midwives and maternity support workers (MSWS) were prepared to take action for what they believe in, and it has brought the UK Government to the table.

We will have them behind us as we enter into negotiations.” 

"A pay award of around 4% was recommended by the NHS Pay Review Body for 2022/23, which was imposed on HSC staff in December.

"This falls way below inflation which still sits in double figures and goes nowhere near making up for the rocketing cost of living says the RCM. 

The Department of Health said it regrets the impact the industrial action will have.

"The department fully understands the frustrations of staff and the severe challenges they have been working under," it said in a statement.

"As things stand, the department is not in a position to make a formal pay offer.

"This reflects the current absence of a budget for 2023/24 and the expectation of a significant financial shortfall.

"We are potentially facing high-impact cuts on health and social care services that are already under considerable pressure."

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