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Sinn Féin claims Julian Smith left 'mid-way through' health crisis summit

Sectretary of State Julian Smith at Stormont in Belfast as he hosts a summit to urge Stormont's leaders to make a series of commitments to tackle Northern Ireland's spiralling health service crisis. Picture by Pacemaker/PA Wire 

Sinn Féin's health spokesman has claimed Secretary of State Julian Smith left "mid-way through" a special 'health summit' called following yesterday's unprecedented strike action by 15,000 nurses across the north.

Pat Sheehan said: "It was disappointing that Julian Smith didn't stay for the full meeting."

Yesterday's strike was a dramatic escalation of the crisis gripping the north's health service.

Nurses were joined by thousands of other healthcare workers in a unified day of action to demand pay parity with NHS colleagues in the rest of the UK as well as "safe staffing".

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There are currently 7,000 empty jobs in the north's health service - including almost 3,000 nursing posts.

It had been expected that at today's meeting Mr Smith would urge Stormont's leaders to make a series of commitments to tackle the crisis, telling the parties to:

  • Commit to paying health workers the same as counterparts in the rest of the UK
  • Agree a three-year pay deal
  • Commit to safer staffing levels
  • Deliver 1,000 new nursing and midwifery undergraduate places over three years
  • Develop an action plan to tackle spiralling waiting times

Mr Sheehan said: "There was no mention of pledges.

"There was no discussion around any pledges and we made it clear to Julian Smith while he was in the room that the health workers shouldn't be used for political leverage in these political negotiations and if the executive isn't sorted out - and even while we are waiting for that to happen - that he and the civil service have the power to implement pay parity and to increase nurse training places to ensure there is safe staffing levels on our wards."

Mr Sheehan said "nothing had changed" as a result of the meeting with the secretary of state.

He said it involved discussions with civil servants around the sums of money that would be required to fix the issues.

He said it was a clear that a "major investment" was required.

"There was consensus that there are major challenges to fix the health service," he said.

Asked if the health crisis had created a greater onus on the parties to strike a powersharing deal, the Sinn Féin MLA stressed that it was vital to reach an agreement that was "credible and sustainable".

"The great fear is if we don't get that and the assembly gets up and running without being sustainable and credible, if it collapses again it raises concerns that it might never get up again in the future," he said.

"So we are concentrating on getting the right deal."

Some of the local parties have accused the secretary of state of using the issue as a stick to beat them into striking a deal to resurrect the institutions. They claim he could intervene if he wanted to, and act on the pay issue in the ongoing absence of power-sharing.

After the summit took place, Mr Smith reiterated his position that he does not have the power to make decisions on the north's health service, making clear to the parties that it is their responsibility.

"I have explained previously that I don't believe I have the power to intervene under the Good Friday Agreement, under that agreement that has provided stability to Northern Ireland, over the past decades," he said.

"Health was established as a devolved matter.

"And we're prioritising health today in terms of the talks process. And I really, really hope that, if we can get the devolved institutions back up and running, that is the most sustainable way to getting pay parity for the trade unions and for the workers that have been going on strike."

Speaking earlier today, Mr Smith discussed the possibility of the British government offering financial support to help address the problems.

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He said: "I'm expecting there will be a number of requests, financial requests, and I'm already in touch with the Treasury, and the key thing is that party leaders here agree to go back into the executive.

"The UK government stands ready to support that decision in any way we can."

Mr Smith would not be drawn on whether there was any likelihood of a breakthrough in the talks to restore powersharing before Christmas.

"These can be very difficult and long processes, we have had some very good engagement this week," he said.

"The most important thing is that people trust each other, and that party leaders who have got different agendas come together in the interests of Northern Ireland. I believe there is a will to do something.

"But let's see how long that takes. It's important, above all, that we have a sustainable Stormont that can last over the next decades and it's that that I want to ensure is delivered through these talks."

Thousands of hospital outpatient appointments and procedures were cancelled yesterday, with major contingency plans put in place as A&E nurses also took to the picket lines and paramedics only responded to life-threatening calls.

There were also widespread closures across many community services in areas including mental health, learning disability, older people’s and children's.

Emergency services, chemotherapy treatment, palliative care, maternity services and ICU units were among those exempted from strike action. Muckamore Abbey Hospital was also protected.

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Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing, which took strike action for the first time in its 103-year history, said she had been "inundated" with calls from nurses who had hoped political intervention would allow the strike to be cancelled.

On Tuesday evening, the leaders of the five main parties wrote to Mr Smith to express their "collective frustration" at the crisis and asked him to restore pay parity.

Ms Cullen said her members had felt "really buoyant" about the letter and believed it could lead to a breakthrough.

"So many contacted me to say they felt that at last their voices were being listened to on behalf of their patients... But once again they have been totally let down," the RCN chief told The Irish News at the Royal Victoria Hospital's picket line.

"There is a now a dawning realisation that they're being used as political footballs and they feel devastated about that. It's not in their DNA to do that to anyone. The principal reason they're here striking is to stand up for their patients.

"What we see here today are the lowest paid nurses in all of the UK - is that any way to treat the people who provide life-preserving services every day of the week? It's not. It's no way to treat the people of Northern Ireland and certainly no way to treat nurses."

Unison, Nipsa and Unite also took part in the unprecedented walkouts.

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