Health workers defiant on picket lines during 24 hour strike in Northern Ireland

Health workers in Northern Ireland vowed to continue the fight for better pay and conditions as they took part in a 24 hour strike.

Members of three of Northern Ireland’s largest unions – Unison, Nipsa and GMB – were on the picket lines on Monday at hospitals and other health service facilities across the region.

Contingency arrangements are in place to ensure emergency care continues despite the action.

Later this week, nurses in the Royal College of Nursing will join RCN colleagues across the UK in Thursday’s nationwide strike.

As Monday’s strike got under way, the chief executives of Northern Ireland’s health trusts issued a joint statement hailing the contribution of staff during the pandemic and insisting they should be “properly rewarded for their work”.

Last week, Stormont’s Department of Health announced that healthcare workers in Northern Ireland would receive a pay rise recommended by independent salary review bodies.

Unions said the increase was not enough and insisted the strike action would continue.

The delayed pay rise move came after civil servants secured the legislative authority to make decisions on pay amid Stormont’s political impasse.

The majority of health workers are to receive at least an additional £1,400 in pay while doctors and dentists will be given a 4.5% rise.

The announcement was always unlikely to have affected the industrial action planned by health workers, as NHS colleagues in Great Britain have voted to strike having already received the 2022/23 rises.

The lack of a devolved executive at Stormont had prevented the awards being made in Northern Ireland before the UK Government intervened last month to pass a budget for Stormont and hand civil servants extra powers.

Carmel Gates (pictured), general secretary at Nipsa union, stood with colleagues at the picket line at Belfast’s City Hospital on Monday morning.

“The workers are here today angry and in the mood to fight because they have seen their living standards driven down over the last 10 years and now have on offer a pay offer that will further drive down their living standards,” she told the PA news agency.

“It is below inflation and it means that they are going to be driven further into poverty.

“These are the heroes that worked through the pandemic. These are the people who’ve been fighting to keep the health service on its feet. It is close to being on its knees because another element of this dispute is the fact that we do not have enough staff. Workers have been driven out of the health service because of poverty wages and we now don’t have enough staff to keep the health service going.

“So, the strike today is about decent wages, decent terms and conditions for the workers and also safe staffing levels to keep the health service alive and well. We’re here to fight and we will fight until we win.”

At the picket line at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, Margaret McKee, a joint branch secretary with Unison, said members “need and deserve” a better pay rise.

“Myself and our members are here because we need a proper pay raise, a pay raise that will help heat our homes, feed our children and clothe our children and pay our rents,” she said.

“It’s not for greed, it’s for need.”

Ms McKee issued a blunt message to Stormont politicians amid the current powersharing impasse in Belfast.

“We need our MLAs to get themselves back into Stormont and to start sorting out our public services,” she told PA.

“We’re not just on strike because of the ridiculous pay offer that they’ve given, we’re also on strike because the staffing levels within all our hospitals here in Northern Ireland. For years now, especially over this past couple of years with Covid, we’re really working under dangerous staffing levels.

“So, there’s no incentive for nurses to stay or anyone to stay to work in the NHS because, let’s face it, the pay isn’t good.”

GMB regional organiser Jim Donley said the pay rise announced by the Department of Health was not enough.

He said workers were struggling amid the cost of living crisis and soaring inflation.

“It’s a really crippling time for everybody,” he said.

The union official said the pandemic had taken its toll on staff.

“This is also about safe staffing levels,” he said.

“People are burnt out and there’s just a chronic shortage of staff.

“With Covid and people working a lot more, they are just burnt out.”

Several politicians joined workers on the picket lines on Monday.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill stood with the strikers at the South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon.

Ms O’Neill said the UK Government needed to “get real” and engage in negotiations with the unions to ensure they got a “fairer pay deal”.

The republican leader said in the absence of a Stormont executive, the responsibility lay with the London government to deliver worker demands on pay and conditions.

“The Tories need to get real,” she said. “They need to get around the table and they need to actually bring forward a deal that actually meets the needs of the workers. They should not have to be on the streets in the month of December in these a sub-zero conditions actually campaigning for what is rightfully theirs.”

In their joint statement, the chief executives of Northern Ireland’s heath trusts acknowledged the region’s health and social care system was facing a “prolonged period of industrial action”.

“Inevitably there will be an impact on services,” they said.

“However, we have contingency plans in place and are working closely with the trade unions to protect our critical services and to mitigate disruption, as far as possible.

“Our staff are not just the backbone of health and care services, they are our colleagues and friends.

“Working in the Health and Social Care System is a way of life.

“The HSC is a family because of the incredible work that takes place on a daily basis, often including additional service over and above normal duties. We obviously want to see all staff properly rewarded for their work. They have been impacted heavily by cost of living increases and escalating pressures on Health and Social Care services. We must also never forget what they did for us all during the pandemic.

“HSC leaders issued a joint statement three years ago, when health and social care workers in Northern Ireland were taking industrial action.

“Its central plea remains just as relevant today and we repeat it now – ‘We are all aware that the Health and Social Care System in Northern Ireland requires a long-term funding settlement that addresses service, workforce and pay pressures in a sustainable manner. We have been struggling with a system where funding has been made available on a yearly basis, which makes it impossible to plan for the long term. Demand is increasing and will continue to do so, meaning that the current system is simply unsustainable.’”

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