Northern Ireland news

Secretary of State to meet trade unions for first time over health crisis - but insists it's a 'devolved' issue

Secretary of State Julian Smith attended a picket line outside the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald yesterday
Seanín Graham

SECRETARY of State Julian Smith will today meet trade union leaders representing nurses and healthcare workers in Northern Ireland as strike action over pay and staffing escalates.

This will the first time Mr Smith has spoken about the crisis with the head of the north's Royal College of Nursing, Pat Cullen, as well as Unison chief, Patricia McKeown.

There has been mounting pressure for Mr Smith to intervene due to a breakdown in negotiations between the Department of Health and unions.

Arriving in Belfast yesterday to meet with senior civil servants, Mr Smith told reporters he was "extremely sorry" for "patients, familes and workers" affected by the ongoing industrial action but insisted it was a "devolved matter".

He also attended a Unison picket outside the Ulster hospital in Dundonald where he was asked by workers about what he intends to do in the absence of Stormont.

Telling them he "wants to have a dialogue" with their trade union leaders, he also stressed the "civil service body is working hard to resolve this" - but that he "doesn't have powers" on the pay issue.

The development came as the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, yesterday warned of the impact of the RCN's first ever strike on December 18.

Unison are also expected to stage a walkout on the same day, with tens of thousands of workers taking to the picket lines.

Speaking on BBC NI's Nolan Show, Dr McBride said the scale and scope of action at a time of pressure on the service meant that "the risk of unintended consequences is real".

He added that he "absolutely accepts" the rights of front-line workers to take action.

"Who wouldn't want hard working staff, totally dedicated and committed staff who are the backbone of our health service to get a fair day's pay, to have pay which is comparable to other parts of the United Kingdom?"

But the RCN chief last night hit out at the "timing" of Dr McBride's intervention after "years" of her union flagging concerns about the impact of nursing cuts on care standards.

"Dr McBride, who carries the senior responsibility for ensuring that statutory duty of quality and safety is implemented fully is now coming out," Ms Cullen told The Irish News.

"For years and years, where was Dr McBride when the buck stops with him? Where was Dr McBride when the cost-saving plans were sent in, slashing the nursing budgets, taking the 3,000 nurses out?

"We now find ourselves in an emergency situation, in not being able to provide proper levels of care and treatment to the people of NI with 306,000 people sitting on waiting lists. It is time for department officials and others within the civil service to start working with, rather than against, nurses and other health staff in order to rescue the health and social care system in Northern Ireland."

Unison chief Patricia McKeown was also critical.

"The crisis in healthcare did not suddenly happen on 25 November 2019 when Unison members commenced industrial action. The crisis, together with the growing pay gap caused the action," she said,

"We are not prepared to have our members scapegoated by the Chief Medical Officer or anyone else who has presided over the growing crisis for patients."

Work to rule action will continue by Unison members today across the north's health trusts while the RCN will commence 48 hours of industrial action beginning next Tuesday.

Outpatient appointments, day case procedures and planned surgeries will be cancelled in the Belfast health trust at the following hospitals today:

Royal Victoria Hospital

Children’s Hospital

School of Dentistry

Belfast City Hospital

Mater Hospital

Musgrave Park Hospital

Emergency servics will not be affected. The trust will contact patients to reschedule appointments and have asked people not to phone them.

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