Industrial action in the Northern Ireland health service is set to escalate in the lead-up to Christmas after an “improved” pay offer was rejected by trade unions.
A hectic series of meetings involving health workers’ unions, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland and the Department of Health were held on Thursday afternoon.
Officials from Unite, Unison, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Nipsa sat down with senior civil servants at Stormont in the evening for intensive talks lasting several hours.
But the discussions failed to avert the plans to ramp up industrial action in the coming weeks as the “final offer” made by the Department of Health fell short.
The RCN, a professional body which has never taken strike action in its 103-year history, confirmed that its plans for targeted strikes exactly one week before Christmas, on December 18, will proceed.
RCN Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen said: “Nurses have made it clear that they expect pay parity with England and Wales, as well as concrete measures to address the nurse staffing crisis in Northern Ireland. These expectations are the basis of our industrial action.”
Unite official Kevin McAdam said: “This ‘improved offer’ as they are calling it didn’t take us far enough. Our industrial action remains in place.”
Emerging from the three-hour talks, Unison negotiator Anne Speed gave a short statement on behalf of the trade unions.
“The department has presented a new position,” she told media waiting outside.
“Trade unions have jointly agreed this remains insufficient and falls short of our members’ requirements and mandate that they have given us.”
The “improved offer” put forward by the Department of Health is worth an extra £28 million.
The civil servant at the helm of the department, Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly, said the offer is “final”.
“It is a matter of great regret that unions have taken this position, indicating that industrial action will now escalate,” he said.
“This will impact significantly on patient care in an already very challenging period for the health service.
“We have made a sizeable new offer. In the absence of ministers, this is the furthest I am able to go. It is therefore the final offer for this year.”
He continued: “Our proposals involve a projected 3.1% increase in the overall pay bill for Agenda for Change staff. This allows us to mirror the English NHS pay settlement for this year, as we did in 2018/19 when a 3% increase was awarded.
“This was always our intention. It had not been possible up to now within the budget we had at our disposal.”
But Pat Cullen of the RCN said: “Nurses are no longer prepared to listen to the same excuses from the department about budgets and not having the ministerial authority to deliver an acceptable pay award.
“Our health service is collapsing as we speak. It is simply not good enough for civil servants to continue to play with words and fail to take effective action to resolve this crisis.”
Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said: “It is now clear that neither the Department of Health nor the Secretary of State has acted in good faith today. Our worst fears have been realised. They are using the health service, health workers and patients alike as bargaining chips to force the return of Stormont.”
She continued: “First they said there was no more money. The Permanent Secretary insisted that £51 million was the ‘the best we can afford’.
“Today they found a further £28 million within the Northern Ireland budget. This still falls over £20 million short of what is required for pay parity. Workers and the public may well question why it is taking so long to identify this funding. They may also question what other resources exist to meet our members’ legitimate demand for pay parity.”
The extra cash on offer comes from the annual January monitoring round process, whereby government departments surrender any funding they don’t need to the Department of Finance to be allocated elsewhere. The finance department said the £28 million was “expedited” in light of the crisis.
Thousands of hospital appointments have been cancelled across Northern Ireland by the industrial action taken by unions to date.
The Health and Social Care board apologised to patients yesterday.