Northern Ireland’s newly elected health minister Robin Swann has said he hopes to meet with trade unions to resolve the industrial dispute “right away”.
Nurses and other health workers have been engaged in industrial action for months amid the dispute around pay and staffing levels.
The former Ulster Unionist Party leader took on the portfolio on Saturday, during the first sitting of the Assembly in three years.
His nomination came as a surprise to some amid speculation that one of the two larger parties – the DUP or Sinn Fein – or his own party leader Steve Aiken would be minded to take on the role.
One of the largest health unions, the Royal College of Nursing, has said it may be possible to “suspend” its industrial action if it can secure “a formal assurance” from the new health minister that its “requirements will be met”.
Mr Swann has now said he will be meeting with trade unions in a bid to resolve the ongoing industrial action.
“I am happy to confirm that contact has been made with trade unions and I will be meeting with them as soon as possible this week,” the former UUP leader said.
“I’m looking forward to getting this dispute sorted right away.”
He continued: “Obviously, the financial package for the new Executive and support from other ministerial colleagues will be central to making that happen. We need our nurses and other health workers back at work.
“There’s a massive challenge for all of us in making our health service better and our great staff have a vital role to play in that.”
The Royal College of Nursing’s Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen, speaking after Mr Swann’s nomination, said: “We welcome Robin Swann MLA as our new health minister and call for an immediate meeting to begin the process of resolving our dispute about pay parity and safe staffing.
“Nurses could not have made it clearer that they do not want to be standing on picket lines losing yet more pay. They want to get back on the wards and in the community, treating and caring for patients like they should be.
“We require strong political leadership and if we are able to get a formal assurance from our new health minister that our requirements will be met, we may be in a position to suspend further industrial action.”
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, added: “When nurses come together to advocate for their patients, we’re a force to be reckoned with.”