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Nurses in Northern Ireland have shown they are “not prepared to be walked over”, union leaders have said, as ministerial commitments around pay and staffing are followed through.
Industrial action including strikes by nurses over the Christmas period paved the way for the restoration of the country’s devolved government and a new deal intended to end the health service dispute.
In January, unions the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives, Unison and Unite agreed to the deal, which promised pay parity with English nurses and measures to boost staffing.
Last week, health minister Robin Swann confirmed that the 2019-20 pay award had been paid into nurses’ March salaries, and that the 2020-21 award had been processed and would be felt in April.
Nurses in Northern Ireland were now being paid equivalent to colleagues in England, said Mr Swann.
Mr Swann has now announced that executive funding had been put in place to secure an additional 300 nursing and midwifery undergraduate places in Northern Ireland in 2020-21, bringing the total to a “new all-time high” of 1,325.
This is part of a commitment made to provide a further 900 pre-registration nursing and midwifery training places over a three-year period.
“There was a big significance in the action they took”
Mr Swann said: “Last week I confirmed that I had made good on the promises to implement two annual pay increases for staff on Agenda for Change terms, including nurses and midwives.
“I am delighted to now confirm that the funding has been secured to increase the number of training places by 300 this year, as planned and agreed with trade union colleagues in January.”
The Department of Health confirmed that Queen’s University was to be allocated 130 of the new places, with Ulster University receiving 105 places, and the Open University taking on 65.
The new places are allocated among the adult, children’s, mental health, learning disability and midwifery fields of practice.
Mr Swann added: “I trust this news will provide a boost to our hard-working nurses and midwives.
“This is another step along the path to ensuring that we have enough staff to meet the health and social care demands of Northern Ireland into the future.
“We are obviously not there yet, but we are heading in the right direction.”
Kevin McAdam, lead officer for health in Northern Ireland for the union Unite, told Nursing Times that he believed the industrial action taken by nurses had a “big impact” on the way the profession was viewed in the country.
“I think it’s very clear that the attitude of management towards nursing and others after that was very much different,” said Mr McAdam.
“I do think that it did have a big impact on who nurses are and what they represent and the fact that they weren’t prepared to be walked over – there was a big significance in the action they took.”
While the pay rise for nurses was welcome, Mr McAdam said the coronavirus crisis had shown that the deal did not go far enough in terms of representing their value and worth.
“Does it go far enough? Well when you consider what our nurses are doing today and for the last six weeks on the frontline, no I don’t think it does, but it has put us in the right place to argue for what is the true value of nurses,” he added.
Another thing the pandemic had done was laid bare “in very stark reality” the true extent and consequence of nurse staffing shortage in the country, said Mr McAdam.
The row over nurse pay and staffing in Northern Ireland caused the Royal College of Nursing to undertake its first-ever strike anywhere in the UK in its history in December.
The Northern Irish branch of the college told Nursing Times it would continue to push for legislation to enshrine in law safe and effective staffing in the country.