Healthcare news

Unions hold crunch Department of Health talks on pay and staffing

Health workers on strike outside Belfast City Hospital earlier this week. Picture by Mark Marlow
Rebecca Black, Press Association

Negotiations are taking place between trade unions and the Department of Health amid ongoing industrial action.

Health workers in the north have been taking part in waves of action over pay and staffing levels.

There has been strike action as well as work-to-rule across the week, causing thousands of surgeries and appointments to be cancelled.

On Thursday, three delegations of trade unions met with Secretary of State Julian Smith.

The third delegation to meet him included Anne Speed from Unison, Kevin McAdam from Unite and Maria Morgan from Nipsa.

They announced they would be attending a meeting with the Department of Health this afternoon.

Ms Speed said: "We have been invited to a meeting this afternoon and we'll have to wait and see what is presented to us at that meeting.

"The meeting will be at the Department of Health and it will be with us as the negotiators of all the unions who have been involved in this dispute."

Ms Morgan added: "We welcome the political intervention from the Secretary of State, and we have highlighted the issues for all of our membership and we will continue to do that in the negotiations this afternoon."

Earlier, Patricia McKeown of Unison said her meeting with Mr Smith had been positive.

She added: "Health workers don't want to be standing on picket lines, they don't want to be making the sacrifices, and most of all they don't want patients to be suffering in any way.

"It has finally got as far as the UK Government, we have had a positive meeting, we expect hopefully a positive response."

Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) led the second delegation to meet Mr Smith.

Speaking afterwards, she said it had been a "very honest discussion".

She added: "We talked frankly about the crisis in nursing and the fact that 3,000 nurses are missing every day from the workforce and that something needs to be done about that immediately.

"The Secretary of state fully acknowledged that and took that on board, so we have come away leaving the secretary of state with a lot of information in relation to the crisis in nursing, the fact that nurses are carrying the health service on their shoulders daily."

She said they now "await feedback from the secretary of state as to those next steps".

Mr Smith had on Wednesday described the ongoing absence of a health minister and devolved government amid the crisis as "unacceptable".

He told the BBC he is "extremely sorry" the strike is affecting patients, families and workers.

Devolved government collapsed almost three years ago following a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

In the absence of ministers, senior civil servants have been left to lead departments.

Mr Smith insisted he is doing what he can within his powers to "move this forward".

In a statement on Thursday morning, the Health and Social Care (HSC) board apologised to patients affected by the industrial action.

It read: "We sincerely apologise for the distress and anxiety caused to all those patients, service users and family members who have been or may be affected by the industrial action.

"Patient care and safety is of paramount concern to all HSC organisations and remains at the forefront of all HSC contingency planning.

"HSC trusts are working hard to try and contact patients and service users who may be impacted by any disruption to services or cancellations. The trusts will contact patients in writing as soon as possible to reschedule."

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