Angry and frustrated nurses took to picket lines across Northern Ireland today with no end in sight to the industrial dispute across the crisis-hit health service.
Thousands of nurses went on strike for the second time in as many months, amid a war of words between health chiefs and union leaders.
At a picket line outside Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry, nurses described their anger after health chiefs called on their union, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), to postpone the action amid “severe” pressures at emergency departments.
The chief executives of the five regional health trusts and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service had, on the eve of the 12-hour strike by the RCN, warned the strikes could push the health system “beyond the tipping point”.
But those comments drew exasperation from nurses.
Sinead Radcliffe, a staff nurse on a hospital ward at Altnagelvin, said: “This isn’t something anyone wants to be doing. We’ve all been a bag of nerves at the thought of leaving patients on the ward. I didn’t sleep at all last night thinking about it. But this is something we have to do.
“There’s never going to be a right time to take strike action.
“The trust saying what they said – they are acting like it is our doing that things are the way they are. But it has been going on for years and part of the reason we are here today is to try and do something about it.”
Melina Kelly, who also works on the hospital wards at Altnagelvin, graduated as a nurse in 2017.
She said part of the reason for the problems with staffing is because nurses are simply leaving Northern Ireland.
“About half of my class when I graduated went abroad to work as soon as they finished and they’re all being paid much better,” she said.
“And why wouldn’t you go to somewhere where you’re treated better? I would probably have went as well but I was pregnant at the time.”
She and her colleagues expressed little hope of a resolution to the dispute coming out of Stormont.
“It’s hard to believe they can’t get it sorted,” she said.
“I don’t think they realise just how bad it is. Maybe they see us out here on a picket line like this and maybe it doesn’t look like much, but they don’t see the struggle that goes on in there every day.”
Fiona Mullan and Janice Carlisle are specialist nurses at Altnagelvin.
Ms Mullan accused the health trusts of “trying to pin the blame” on nurses.
“The unsafe staffing levels has been a problem for years. That’s part of the reason we’re here. For specialist nurses, we can see the knock-on effects.”
Ms Carlisle said: “We’re not out here making big demands. We just want to be paid the same as everyone else in the UK. It’s only fair.”
Lyndsay Thomson, 30, from Bangor in Co Down, works as a staff nurse in anaesthetics at the Ulster Hospital.
“We cannot retain or recruit staff and staff are just at the point of burn-out,” she said.