New crisis for NI health service as thousands of appointments cancelled

Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly
Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly
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Thousands of hospital appointments scheduled for next week have been cancelled as the effects of staff strikes begin to cripple health services.

The Belfast Trust has cancelled all outpatient appointments and planned surgery for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, a move expected to impact around 10,000 patients.

Last night Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly (pictured) publicly appealed to trade unions to pause industrial action and enter into an independent conciliation process.

Health workers across Northern Ireland are staging industrial action in protest at pay and staffing levels which they claim are “unsafe”.

Further action is planned by Unison next week. The Royal College of Nursing are also planning 24 hours of industrial action short of strike on December 3.

The Belfast Trust said it was “extremely sorry for the disruption and distress” the cancellation of services will cause to patients and their families. It said cancelled appointments will be rebooked at a later date.

All outpatient appointments and planned surgery has been cancelled on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at - Children’s Hospital, Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, School of Dentistry, Belfast City Hospital, Mater Hospital and Musgrave Park Hospital.

The trust said that on Wednesday all outpatient services “will run as normal” but all planned surgeries; planned admissions and day case procedures are still postponed.

The cancellations come just a day after Department of Health statistics were revealed which showed patient waiting times here have reached an all-time high. More than 300,000 people are waiting for a first appointment with a consultant.

Department of Health Permanent Secretary Mr Pengelly said last night that the health service is in a fragile state and that the industrial action would exacerbate the situation.

He said: “The latest disturbing waiting time statistics have just been released, hospital Emergency Departments remain under severe pressure and winter-related illnesses are impacting on the population.

“I fully understand the deep-seated anger and frustration of staff dealing with these escalating problems day and daily. Indeed, I share those feelings. My appeal to unions is simply this – please don’t allow a bad situation to become worse.

“The ultimate resolution to this dispute rests with Ministers. The Department does not have the budget or the authority to meet union demands on pay for this year – I understand how frustrating that position is for the trade unions, but it is the reality we face.

“However, we are ready and willing to enter into a conciliation process with unions to map out an implementation plan for incoming Ministers.”

Mr Pengelly said he had written to colleagues across the health and social care system setting out the Department’s proposals.

Unison, which represents about 25,000 healthcare workers, is seeking pay parity with NHS staff in the rest of the UK.

It has also said that in nursing alone there are nearly 2,500 vacant posts in Northern Ireland and has described staffing levels as “unsafe”.

Nurses are set to stage their own industrial action next week after members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) voted to strike for the first time in its 103-year history.

Nurses will refuse to work unpaid hours or do any task that is not patient-specific on December 3, building to a 12-hour strike on December 18.