Health strikes set to ramp up in weeks ahead

Industrial action across the Northern Ireland health service is set to “heat up” in the coming weeks, a trade union boss has said.

Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 6:30 am
Updated Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 10:15 am
The Antrim Area hospital where workers were piped to the picket line from the hospital

The first strike action in a dispute between trade unions and the Department of Health over pay and staffing levels began yesterday, with staff on picket lines at the Antrim, Belfast City and Ulster hospitals.

Further action will happen today, with disruption expected in the Northern and Belfast health trusts, where drivers are to go on strike for a number of hours.

Meanwhile, industrial action short of strike by all members of Unison started yesterday and is due to continue until December 18 in what the largest trade union in the Northern Ireland health service, Unison, has described as “phase one”.

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Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown told the News Letter that the industrial action is set to intensify.

“Things will start to heat up next week, for sure,” she told the News Letter yesterday.

“And there are other trade unions set to begin industrial action as well — for example the Royal College of Nursing — and others balloting members. Things will certainly progress in the weeks ahead.”

The dispute centres around pay rates and staffing levels.

Yesterday, staff working in sterile services at Antrim Area Hospital formed a picket line at 8am, with support staff at the Ulster Hospital and staff working in sterile services at Belfast City Hospital following suit before lunchtime.

Meanwhile, the News Letter understands that a ballot on industrial action by health service staff in the NIPSA union ended yesterday, although the results were not yet known last night.

The results of a similar ballot by the trade union Unite is expected to be known by Monday.

The largest nursing union in Northern Ireland, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), has already voted to strike.

Industrial action short of a strike by RCN members is set to begin on Tuesday, with the first strike action by nurses set for December 18,

And there are still more ballots taking place across the health service. The Society and College of Radiographers, for example, started a ballot on November 19 while the Royal College of Midwives are set to hold a ballot on industrial action in the New Year.

The man in charge at the Department of Health in the absence of a Stormont minister, the permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, said “intensive contingency planning” is under way.

But the most senior civil servant at Stormont, David Sterling, and the woman in charge of the purse strings Sue Gray, warned that there are “no easy fixes” to the pay issues.

Richard Pengelly said: “Intensive contingency planning is being undertaken to mitigate the impact of industrial action on patients and other service users.

“It is nevertheless inevitable that there will be an impact on patients. This has been publicly acknowledged by the trade union leadership.

He added: “I can assure everyone that the department did everything in its power to prevent industrial action. This included a pay offer that would add 2.1% to the pay bill for Agenda for Change staff.

“In addition, we proposed an independently-facilitated process to develop longer term solutions on pay and staffing issues in nursing and the wider HSC workforce.

“The budgetary pressures on health and other parts of the public sector are very well known.”

The head of the civil service, David Sterling, added: “The frustrations are very evident in a number of sectors and it is a matter of great regret for us all to see discontent of this level among colleagues.

“There are no easy fixes in our current situation to these problems but dialogue offers the best way forward.”

Permanent secretary of the Department of Finance Sue Gray said: “The department of health budget has been prioritised and protected as far as possible in the context of a very challenging environment.

“There is no doubt that departments face difficult decisions with departments having to prioritise the funding of pay awards against the other pressures facing essential public services.”

She added: “Unfortunately at this point in the financial year all available funding has been allocated.”