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Health leaders in Northern Ireland are urging nursing unions to not allow a “bad situation to become worse” and end their industrial action.
Permanent secretary Richard Pengelly described the health service as “extremely fragile” and that the current action being undertaken by health workers was exacerbating the situation.
“There’s no reason to suspend this action, which health workers voted for”
He said: “The latest disturbing waiting time statistics have just been released, hospital emergency departments remain under severe pressure and winter-related illnesses are impacting on the population.
“I fully understand the deep-seated anger and frustration of staff dealing with these escalating problems day [in, day out]. Indeed, I share those feelings. My appeal to unions is simply this – please don’t allow a bad situation to become worse.”
The dispute centres on health workers in Northern Ireland being paid less than their counterparts in other UK countries.
Severe understaffing in health services is also making it difficult for staff to do their job.
Members of the union Unison began strike action last week to demonstrate their upset over the current pay situation.
Unison’s Northern Ireland head of bargaining, Anne Speed, responded to the government.
She said: “There’s no reason to suspend this action, which health workers voted for.
“We’ve been talking for over a year and no progress has been made. More funding has to be made available urgently to lift the health service out of its present crisis for the sake of patients and staff.
“Health and care workers deserve to be paid fairly, in line with wage rates in other parts of the UK.”
Mr Pengelly has written a letter to colleagues across the health and social care service setting out the government’s position.
Firstly, it notes that serious health staffing challenges are by no means limited to Northern Ireland.
Secondly, the department has not received enough money through the Barnett formula to replicate England’s health pay settlement.
The Barnett formula is a mechanism used by the Treasury to automatically adjust the amounts of public expenditure allocated to Northern Ireland.
According to the government, as the Northern Irish workforce includes social work and social care it is proportionately much larger than England’s, meaning that the formula does not allow for adequate funds.
Finally, the government emphasised that funding cannot be switched from agency expenditure overnight to improve on the 2.1% pay offer for this year.
“My appeal to unions is simply this – please don’t allow a bad situation to become worse”
Members of the Royal College of Nursing are planning to begin action on 3 December in the college’s first ever official UK strike.
As a result, a major nursing conference run by the chief nursing officers for both Northern Ireland and the Republic has been cancelled as it was scheduled for the same day.
Unions Unite and the Royal College of Midwives are currently balloting members over industrial action.
Mr Pengelly continued: “The ultimate resolution to this dispute rests with ministers. The department does not have the budget or the authority to meet union demands on pay for this year – I understand how frustrating that position is for the trade unions, but it is the reality we face.”
The government has not been operating in Northern Ireland since it was dissolved in 2017.
This has meant that civil servants have been responsible for day-to-day decisions, but they are unable to pass major changes without ministerial approval.
Mr Pengelly said: “However, we are ready and willing to enter into a conciliation process with unions to map out an implementation plan for incoming ministers.
“Trade unions have so far said they are unable to accept our conciliation proposals. I am now publicly urging them to think again.”