Nurses strike in North brings ‘extremely challenging day’ for health services

Public support healthcare workers by sounding car horns and offering hot drinks and food

Cancer nurses Iona McCormack (left) and Edel Coulter outside  Belfast City Hospital as nurses across Northern Ireland took part in a 12-hour strike over pay. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Cancer nurses Iona McCormack (left) and Edel Coulter outside Belfast City Hospital as nurses across Northern Ireland took part in a 12-hour strike over pay. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

The North’s Secretary of State Julian Smith is to convene a health summit of party leaders later on Thursday after strike action by nurses and other healthcare workers led to the cancellation of almost 5,000 appointments in Northern Ireland on Wednesday.

Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Unison, Unite and NIPSA trade unions took part the stoppage in a protest over pay and staffing levels. The strike is due to finish at midnight.

In a joint statement, Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care (HSC) organisations said they had experienced “major disruptions to many services” as a result of the industrial action.

Speaking on their behalf, the Chief Executive of the HSC Board Valerie Watts said it had been an “extremely challenging day”.

On Wednesday evening she said Trusts were coping but were “reporting significant pressures” in emergency departments and patients were “experiencing lengthier delays than usual at this busy time of the year.”

She said she sincerely apologised “to all our patients and services users who have been impacted and distressed by the many cancellations, service closures and disruptions. This is regrettable, and Trusts will ensure appointments are rescheduled as soon as practically possible,” she said.

More than 20,000 healthcare workers were present on picket lines across Northern Ireland on Wednesday. They attracted significant support from the public, who sounded car horns and brought strikers tea, coffee and food.

“Everybody’s been very positive and everybody is supporting us, they understand the reason why we’re out ,” said nurse Alan Philson, branch secretary with Unison.

“Being nurses, our priority is to be the advocate for the patient, and we’re saying safe staffing levels is the priority here, because we’re struggling as it is with the staff we have and we’re losing staff hand over fist because there is no pay parity [with the rest of the NHS].

“We need staff, we need support, we need investment, and it’s been falling on deaf ears for a long time,” he said.

Mr Smith said on social media that he was “deeply concerned by the health crisis in Northern Ireland” and the political parties “must address the health crisis as an immediate priority.”

But he has also ruled out seeking additional funding from the UK government, saying health was primarily a devolved matter which could be solved “by the parties coming together and moving things forward.”

It is understood the summit will ensure that any restored Executive will be able to resolve issues like the health crisis.

Northern Ireland has been without a health minister for almost three years, since the devolved government at Stormont collapsed following a row over a renewable heating scheme.

Each of the parties has said health is a priority in the current talks aimed at restoring the Assembly.

The Chief Executive of one of the North’s HSC Trusts, Seamus McGoran, said he sympathised with staff but urged them to suspend strike action in order force politicians to “step up to the plate”.

Mr McGoran, who heads the South Eastern Trust, said “there’s maybe an opportunity to challenge our politicians, and it’s a case of put up or shut up, I suppose.”

-Additional reporting PA