Health workers’ unions suspend strikes in Northern Ireland

The reopened Stormont parliament
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Northern Ireland health unions suspended strike action yesterday (16 January) following talks with the Department of Health.

Health workers who were members of Unison, Nipsa, Unite and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) had taken staged several days of industrial action in protest over pay and staffing since 25 November.

They included nurses, ambulance service staff, support staff, admin, clerical and managerial staff, social services and socal care workers and professional and technical employees.

On Tuesday the unions had a meeting with health minister Robin Swann at which £79m was committed by the government toward pay parity for health workers with an extra £30m from existing Stormont finances.

Swann said the DoH would commit to high level engagement with unions to produce a costed implementation plan on safe staffing. He added that he hoped the additional pay will be received by health workers by March.

“We’re hopeful that we can move to the facilitation of the distribution of that money, we’re potentially looking March, possibly April, but it will be as soon as we can possibly get it into their pockets. That’s about showing the genuine goodwill we have in addressing that need of pay parity,” he said.

An RCN spokesperson said in response that it was recommending to its members that strikes should be suspended and added: “We are pleased that the minister has listened carefully and responded quickly to our concerns, and that the situation in relation to pay parity has now been resolved.

“We are also satisfied that real progress has been made in relation to safe staffing and recruitment and retention of nursing staff.

“There is a long way to go and we will work closely with the minister and Department of Health to find a sustainable way forward.”

Head of bargaining for Unison health workers Anne Speed said the union was balloting its membership with a recommendation to accept Swann’s offer: “We genuinely hope that justice for our members and patients alike is imminent. We remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached and that our dispute can be resolved.”

Kevin McAdam from Unite told the BBC: “I’ve been at this for two years and it took us to go out on the street and it’s a disgrace it took us that far. But I welcome what’s happened now.”

He described Ulster Unionist Robin Swann, who took on the role on 11 January, as “a breath of fresh air”.

The RCN’s director Pat Cullen also recognised the resumption of power sharing as a key reason for the change in atmosphere. She said: “The progress this week is testament to having political leadership in place following three years of standing still.”

The office of minister of health had been suspended between 2 March 2017 and 11 January because of the suspension of the Stormont parliament.

Waiting lists and waiting times for patients across Northern Ireland had reached crisis levels in 2019 and, said Unison, rates of pay were failing to attract enough frontline staff to maintain service levels. There are about 7,000 vacancies across Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Boards.

On 5 December the DoH offered a 3.1% increase for staff on Agenda for Change contracts, mirroring the NHS England pay settlement for 2019. This was rejected by unions.

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