Northern Ireland

Health minister calls for compromise on junior doctor pay to avoid ‘highly damaging’ strike action

Junior doctors in England staged the longest strike in NHS history in January
Industrial strike Junior doctors in England staged the longest strike in NHS history in January. Now Stormont's health minister Robin Swann has called for compromise on pay negotiations to avoid a "highly damaging" 24-hour walkout in Northern Ireland next month. (Ben Birchall/PA)

Health Minister Robin Swann has called for pay negotiations to be “a two-way street” after junior doctors voted overwhelmingly in favour of a one-day strike action next month.

Responding to an urgent oral question from the SDLP’s Colin McGrath on Tuesday, Mr Swann was asked what he would do to prevent the walkout on March 6.

Stating he was acutely aware of the pressures facing junior doctors, he said resolving pay disputes was his immediate priority.

This included instructing his officials to immediately implement recommendations from an independent review body on doctor pay (DDRB).

“For junior doctors this will bring an average pay increase of 9.07% in 2023/24, with those in their first year receiving a 10.68% uplift,” he said.

He said this was not “insubstantial” when compared to other sectors and would be backdated to April 2023.

Mr Swann said this would bring junior doctor basic pay above the level in Wales and closer to the rate in England.

He said differences in junior doctor contracts in England meant that a direct pay comparison was not possible.

He added that basic pay was not the whole picture, as all junior doctors received an additional allowances ranging from 20-100% of their pay depending on their rota.

Last week, the British Medical Association were highly critical following a meeting with Department of Health officials, but Mr Swann said this engagement would continue and there would be greater clarity after negotiations with junior doctors in England were concluded.

He said the recent allocation for his department of £550.6m for pay awards and other pressures allowed more negotiations with health unions.

“It must be recognised that this funding will have to be shared across all different sections of the workforce.

Health Minister Robin Swann , as Northern Ireland's devolved government is restored, Two years to the day since it collapsed. PICTURE:  COLM LENAGHAN
Executive at Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann.PICTURE:  COLM LENAGHAN

“The reality is that implementing the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies of mirroring the 2023/24 pay settlements in England is at the very limit of what can be afforded at this point.”

Warning that further industrial action would cause “significant disruption” on health services, he appealed on the BMA to recognise the “financial limitations” that all departments were facing.

“Further action at this time, before a final outcome on pay has even been reached would be highly damaging.”

Mr McGrath followed up by pointing out that 97% of junior doctors balloted were supporting the strike after a 30% pay erosion over 16 years and that doctors in Scotland had just been offered a 12% pay increase.

Mr Swann said that further meetings between his officials and the BMA were planned for next week, but called for compromise.

“I’ve always had a good working relationship with all the healthcare sector unions because our workforce is the core of what we do,” he said.

“I’ve always been open to them, I’ve always been engaging with them and I’ll continue to be so but it has to be a two-way street.”