Healthcare news

Health minister Robin Swann expected to offer deal to unions to stop strikes

Health minister Robin Swann will today meet with trade unions
Seanín Graham

NEWLY-appointed health minister Robin Swann will take part in a crunch executive meeting this morning ahead of talks with trade unions to bring an end to strike action.

The Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim is expected to offer a pay parity deal to representatives of nurses and healthcare workers following support from ministerial colleagues on funding.

Around £30m is required to bring salaries in the north into line with Britain - but that would cover only one year.

Measures to ensure staffing levels are "safe" are also a key demand of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison, and will feature heavily in this morning's sit-down.

There are almost 3,000 nursing vacancies in Northern Ireland, with workforce planning a remit of the Department of Health.

A formal deal will have to be agreed with the unions which will then be put to their members, with a view to suspending strikes planned next week.

Three walkouts by thousands of nurses are planned for next Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

In a statement released at the weekend, Mr Swann said he is "keen to get this dispute sorted right away", adding that a finance package for the new executive and support from other ministers are "central to making it happen."

The hospital waiting list crisis is also expected to be discussed at the executive today.

Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly last year said between £750 million and £1 billion will be required to wipe out waiting lists, with more than 300,000 patients currently facing delays.

He also warned that the health service will need Northern Ireland's entire government budget to function in 20 years' time unless there is urgent reform.

Around half of the overall executive budget is allocated to health, at more than £5 billion per year.

Mr Pengelly was among senior civil servants who briefed Mr Swann within a short time of taking up his post on Saturday afternoon.

The new minister, who was a surprise choice for the health portfolio, has also been involved in multiple meetings with officials and separate briefings with finance chiefs.

With health service failings and the nurses strike - the first by the RCN in over a century - dominating headlines over the past two months, the crisis gripping the system has been seen as a main driver in getting devolution restored.

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