More than 10,000 nurses in Northern Ireland will go on strike twice before Christmas as part of a UK-wide walkout over pay and patient safety concerns.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced its members will picket on December 15th and December 20th, in what will be the first national action in the trade union’s 106-year history.
The development comes during a period of unprecedented health service pressures in Northern Ireland and record high waiting lists.
Representing about two-thirds of the entire NHS nursing workforce, the RCN says the UK government has turned down its offer of “formal, detailed negotiations as an alternative to strike action”.
Nurses working in the North are the lowest paid in the UK, as a recommended minimum pay award given to their UK counterparts in the summer could not be made following Stormont’s collapse earlier this year.
The RCN is asking for a 5 per cent pay rise above the Retail Price Index (RPI) rate of inflation, which stands at more than 12 per cent.
In December 2019, RCN members in the North became the first to take strike action over pay parity and “unsafe” staffing levels.
RCN general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen, who is originally from Carrickmore in Co Tyrone, said: “Ministers have had more than two weeks since we confirmed that our members felt such injustice that they would strike for the first time.
“My offer of formal negotiations was declined and instead ministers have chosen strike action. They have the power and the means to stop this by opening serious talks that address our dispute.
“Nursing staff have had enough of being taken for granted, enough of low pay and unsafe staffing levels, enough of not being able to give our patients the care they deserve.”
The strikes will take place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Scotland, the RCN has paused announcing strike action after the government there reopened pay negotiations.
The trade union said the economic argument for paying nursing staff fairly was clear when billions of pounds was being spent on agency staff to plug workforce gaps.
It added that in the last year, 25,000 nursing staff around the UK left the Nursing and Midwifery Council register, with poor pay contributing to staff shortages, which it warned was affecting patient safety.
Despite repeated recruitment campaigns in the North, there are more than 2,000 unfilled NHS nursing jobs with increasing numbers leaving to work in the private sector.
Thousands of other healthcare workers in Northern Ireland represented by Unison have also voted overwhelmingly to strike next month over pay and staff shortages.
Porters, nurses, security guards, paramedics, cleaners, midwives, occupational therapists and social workers are among those who will be involved in the action.
The move comes less than a fortnight after Stormont’s Department of Health warned of a “serious mismatch” between the current demand for care and “the capacity of the system to deliver it”.
Its intervention followed the death of a woman in her 70s on an A & trolley in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital and a health trust separately declaring a “major incident” due to demands.
Responding to the RCN announcement, the UK’s Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “I am hugely grateful for the hard work and dedication of nurses and deeply regret some union members will be taking industrial action.
“These are challenging times for everyone and the economic circumstances mean the RCN’s demands, which on current figures are a 19.2% pay rise, costing £10 billion a year, are not affordable.”