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Health trust chiefs warn of 'significant risk' to patient safety due to escalating industrial action

Healthcare staff protest outside Belfast City Hospital. Picture by Mark Marlow
Seanín Graham

THE chief executives of Northern Ireland's six health trusts have formally warned the Department of Health that "a significant risk to patient safety is likely" due to escalating industrial action.

In a statement released today, the heads of the Belfast, Northern, Western, Southern, South Eastern and Ambulance trusts say they have advised Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly of the "real concern" for service continuity "during what is already a very demanding period".

"We now all need to urgently find a resolution to the current dispute," they state.

"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.

"Given the immediate risk arising from the industrial action, it is essential that we find a means of resolving the dispute in the short term. We accept that this is not possible without ministerial intervention and further resource."

The intervention came as trade unions and the Belfast trust clashed yesterday over the cancellation of 10,000 appointments and surgeries - including testing for suspected cancer cases - due to industrial action.

Belfast health trust, which is the biggest in the north and houses many regional medical specialties, announced the move last Friday evening, linking it directly to walkouts by Unison and planned industrial action by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

Read more: Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson fears cancer surgery may be cancelled over strike action

Its chief executive, Martin Dillon, told the BBC that outpatient cancellations meant that some people due to have cancer diagnostic tests had their appointments "stood down".

This sparked a furious response from Unison and the RCN, who claimed the trust's decision was unnecessary.

The RCN will today begin the first phase of its 'work to rule' action, with thousands of members engaging in "nursing duties" only and not carrying out administration, portering and unpaid overtime, according to its director, Pat Cullen.

Similar action will take place by the union on two days next week, with an unprecedented all-out strike set for December 18 over safe staffing and pay.

Unison, which represents the majority of the north's healthcare workforce, began its phased strike action last week with workers across sterile supplies, transport and domestics taking to the picket lines, while those in pharmacy, x-ray services and security were among those who staged walkouts yesterday.

Regional secretary Patricia McKeown responded to Mr Dillon's comments by saying: "The trust did not indicate any intention to cancel cancer diagnostic treatment. If it had done so, it would have been exempted.

"We ask the Belfast trust to urgently engage with Unison's local representatives to explain why they have taken this action and to put it right."

Hospitals expected to be affected today by cancellations include the Royal Victoria Hospital, Children's Hospital, Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, School of Dentistry, Belfast City Hospital, Mater Hospital and Musgrave Park Hospital.

The RCN insisted its members would be "providing patient care today" and claimed there was "no rationale" for the "drastic" move.

Ms Cullen said it was "outrageous" to attempt to blame nurses for decisions to cancel operations and had "significantly increased the levels of anger amongst nurses and made us more determined than ever to intensify our demand for safe and effective patient care".

"Our members will be working today apart from lunchtime when we will meet for an hour at 12.15pm. They will not be carrying out those non-nursing duties which are being used to prop up the health service and which they routinely carry out," she said.

"They are not withdrawing their labour... and we do not accept, on any level, that this should result in the cancellation, at such short notice, of all of these appointments. In fact, some of our members have contacted me to say that patients turned up on Monday after being told their appointments were cancelled - but were treated as nurses were on the ground."

She added: "Our nurses have taken on the burden of running the health service and they cannot continue to do this - they have been forced to resort to this action."

In a statement, the Belfast trust said it understands the "distress and anxiety" by the cancelled appointments and apologised for the "significant impact" on patients.

A spokesman said it was linked to the "combined impact" of industrial action by two unions.

"This means that not just nursing but vital patient support services are affected. All our staff play a central role in ensuring the totality of services to all our patients continue," he said.

"This includes pharmacy services; sterilising instruments for day procedures and operations; transporting sterile and dirty equipment to and from operating theatres; ensuring patient samples go to laboratories; medical records; x-ray and imaging services; portering services to bring patients to and from scans and theatres; catering; domestic services; laundry; security; and car parking.

"Industrial action including strike action and action short of strike involving all these areas is taking place this week. Across all our sites, we have work to rules where we cannot access bank staff, overtime or additional hours should staff call in sick.

"We have therefore, regrettably been left in the position that we cannot guarantee required staffing levels for the impacted services and once again apologise to all patients affected. Our principle priority is to maintain a safe environment for staff and patients alike across our facilities."

Read more: Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson fears cancer surgery may be cancelled over strike action

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