Thousands of nurses in Northern Ireland have gone on strike over “unsafe” staffing levels and pay inequality with the rest of the UK.
Nine-thousand Royal College of Nursing members began their 12-hour walk-out this morning – the first time the union has staged a strike in its 103-year history.
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Meanwhile around 6,500 nurses who are members of the Unison union, as well as Unite NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance) members, are taking part in a 24-hour strike.
Dame Donna Kinnair, RCN chief executive and general secretary, said: “This is a moment every nurse wishes had never come, but faced with an abject failure to tackle unsafe staffing levels and severe pay inequality with colleagues in the rest of the UK, our members in Northern Ireland are saying enough is enough.
“Nurses are taking a stand for their patients, and also for their colleagues. It is about time the powers that be finally sit up and take notice because the crisis in [health and social care] cannot be allowed to continue.”
The RCN claimed that there are around 2,800 vacant nursing positions in Northern Ireland, with “record levels of money” being spent on agency staff to fill resourcing gaps.
It also suggested that nurses’ pay has fallen by 15% in real terms over the past few years. Earlier this month unions rejected a 3.1% pay increase for staff on Agenda for Change contracts, proposed by the Department of Health, which mirrored the NHS England pay settlement for this year.
Ninety-two per cent of the RCN’s members balloted last month voted to strike.
While thousands of nursing staff are taking strike action, the RCN said essential life-preserving services, such as intensive care and chemotherapy, will be resourced as usual.
RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said: “With around 2,800 vacant nursing posts in the HSC [Health and Social Care Board – the organisation that commissions health services in Northern Ireland], record levels of money being spent on agency staff to plug gaps and nurses’ pay sliding further and further behind the rest of the UK, our members have had enough. The concerns of nurses were raised again and again over a number of years, but this has continued to fall on deaf ears.
“The future of the HSC is now at a crossroads and we all wish to see a rapid solution to the patient safety crisis and the stark pay inequalities between those in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown suggested that patients and nursing staff were being “used as pawns in a political game”.
“Everyone with power and authority in this society has conceded that our cause is just. We have had ‘sympathy’ from the UK government through the Secretary of State, from all political parties that stood on our picket lines and from the leadership of the health service. But we have no resolution,” she said.
A spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care Board said: “All Health and Social Care organisations will continue to work alongside the unions to safeguard urgent and time critical care and to mitigate the effects of the disruption.
“This is a very stressful time for everyone involved in the delivery of services and we would ask anyone who is availing of HSC services to respect our staff who will be providing services during what will be an extremely challenging day for all.”