Health service strikes: Julian Smith refuses to get involved, even with lives at risk

Industrial action has been going on at hospitals since last week and is to be ramped up before Christmas ' but Julian Smith says it is a devolved matter
Industrial action has been going on at hospitals since last week and is to be ramped up before Christmas ' but Julian Smith says it is a devolved matter
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Secretary of State Julian Smith has refused to get involved in a health crisis which is now becoming a matter of life and death – and instead insisted that the only solution is the restoration of Stormont.

Yesterday it became clear that patients – including some of those needing life-saving cancer treatment – are having their lives put at risk due to the cancellation of surgery and diagnostic tests because of a strike by medical staff asking for pay parity with other parts of the UK.

When they left office, DUP and Sinn Fein health ministers had not reversed a decision to break pay parity with the rest of the UK, leaving civil servants now implementing the policy of the last Executive but unable to change it without a minister to take what would be a political decision.

Stormont’s Department of Health has said that it cannot give trade unions what they want without a minister.

Amid the standoff, patients are suffering.

Yesterday the Belfast Health Trust admitted that some diagnostic tests for cancer had been cancelled.

And the News Letter is aware of a patient whose urgent cancer surgery has been postponed as a result of the industrial action – and has no idea when it may happen.

In the absence of a devolved minister, the only other way in which decisions can be taken is by direct rule.

Prior to the dissolution of Parliament for the general election, the government did not bring forward enabling legislation to allow for the secretary of state to bring in direct rule.

That means that direct rule – even in a crisis – is impossible until Parliament reconvenes after the election.

However, the secretary of state – who represents the government which remains responsible for Northern Ireland – could take a series of other actions to attempt to take control of the situation.

The News Letter asked Mr Smith a series of questions yesterday, including whether he would ask the Treasury to allocate more funding to Stormont which could be used to provide a health pay increase or whether he would seek to use prerogative powers to intervene in this dispute in an attempt to resolve it.

The Northern Ireland Office did not answer the questions.

Instead it released a brief statement which said: “Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, the secretary of state is aware of and extremely concerned about the challenges facing health provision in Northern Ireland. He last week met the NI Department of Health and RCN on this specific issue.

“The government is clear this is one of a number of the urgent problems that we need a restored Executive to tackle and that is why we are so focused on getting Stormont back.”

Yesterday evening Mr Smith tweeted to again emphasise that he does not see the issue as his responsibility.

He said: “V [sic] concerned about strikes in NI health service today. In touch with health dept but as a devolved matter we need Stormont back to resolve.”

Last week it was confirmed that more than 133,000 patients are waiting more than a year for hospital treatment and more than 300,000 people are waiting to see a consultant.

The Royal College of Surgeons said that “Northern Ireland’s healthcare system is at the point of collapse”.

The Patient and Client Council was established a decade ago to speak up on behalf of patients and has an annual budget of £1.6 million.

When asked for a comment on the crisis yesterday, the body said in a brief statement: “The Patient and Client Council assist up to 1,500 individuals a year who have concerns, queries or need advice and information on their health and social care. We recognise the difficult situation surrounding the current strike action. Any strike action inevitably impacts on patient care and this is very concerning. We would encourage all those involved to get around a table and agree a collective resolution as soon as possible.”

Last night the chief executives of Northern Ireland’s six health trusts issued a joint statement in which they said: “We believe a significant risk to patient safety is likely”, but it would be impossible to resolve the situation “without ministerial intervention and further resource”.

By Rebecca Black, PA

More than 10,000 outpatient appointments and surgeries in Belfast have been cancelled amid ongoing industrial action by health workers.

Trade union Unison took part in planned waves of four-hour strikes yesterday.

Further action is planned this week, while the Royal College of Nurses will stage 24 hours of industrial action, short of strike, on Tuesday.

The Health and Social Care Board has apologised to all those affected.

Belfast Trust chief executive Martin Dillon yesterday told the BBC that outpatient cancellations meant people due to have cancer diagnostic tests this week had seen their appointments stood down.

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary Unison NI, responded by saying: “The trust did not indicate any intention to cancel cancer diagnostic treatment. If it had done so, it would have been exempted.

“We ask the Belfast Trust to urgently engage with Unison’s local representatives to explain why they have taken this action and to put it right.”

Hospitals expected to be affected today include the Royal Victoria Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, School of Dentistry, Belfast City Hospital, Mater Hospital and Musgrave Park Hospital.

The industrial action comes after talks last month between trade unions and employers ended without agreement.

Ms McKeown said the action is against “unjust pay and unsafe staffing levels”.

The Department of Health said a formal pay offer was made, which represents a 2.1% increase to the pay bill.

The department’s Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly said it was the best that could be afforded given what he described as budgetary constraints and amid the limited authority in the absence of a health minister at Stormont.

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan has expressed concern at the situation, saying: “Patients deserve better and so do our staff. It is unacceptable that they are expected to work for less than their counterparts in Britain. We need an urgent resolution of this situation and it certainly cannot come at the expense of our staff wellbeing.”

Alliance MLA and South Belfast election candidate Paula Bradshaw also issued a statement urging talks.

“We saw all-party agreement led to successful progression on the implementation of the Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry. There is no excuse for not managing the same process immediately as all-party talks on restoration of the Executive begin,” she said.

“There can be no excuse for further delay and agreement must be found swiftly regardless of whether or not a local minister is in place in the new year.”