Northern Ireland

Junior doctors strike in Northern Ireland moves closer as BMA voice frustration after pay talks with health officials

Dr Fiona Griffin, chair of BMA’s Northern Ireland junior doctors’ committee
Dr Fiona Griffin, chair of BMA’s Northern Ireland junior doctors’ committee

A junior doctors’ strike in Northern Ireland looks increasingly likely after meetings on pay this week with Department of Health officials left medics feeling “extremely disappointed and disheartened”.

Members of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Junior Doctors Committee (NIJDC) are being balloted for the first time on whether to take strike action next month.

The NIJDC said it followed pay erosion amounting to a 30% reduction over 15 years.

Results of the ballot are to be announced on Monday, and could mean a 24 hour strike starting at 8am on March 6.

It follows an enormous day of industrial action in Northern Ireland on January 18 from public sector workers covering health, teachers, civil servants and transport.

Expectations of reaching pay parity with the rest of the UK has been increased with the return of Stormont, and the release of £688m on Thursday by the Executive for public sector pay increases, but the BMA issued a statement on Friday to show its frustration.

“There is undeniable discontent among doctors working in Northern Ireland around pay,” the joint statement read from the chairs of the NIJDC, Dr Fiona Griffin, the Northern Ireland SAS committee (representing specialist, staff grade, associate specialist and speciality doctors), Dr Leanne Davison and Dr David Farren from the Northern Ireland consultants committee.

“Years of pay erosion and a lack of meaningful progress on pension reform has coincided with escalating workloads and burnout levels. It is at the centre of a workforce crisis in the profession as many of us are choosing to either leave the health service entirely through early retirement or work elsewhere for better pay and conditions.”

They said the scale of the discontent with junior doctors demonstrated through the ballot was shared by consultant and SAS doctors who were also “moving in that direction”.

“We have raised this issue for years with our political institutions and the Department of Health with little progress, if at all,” they said.

They said a renewed sense of hope ultimately turned to disappointment after being invited by the Health Minister Robin Swann to “engage” with officials on Thursday.

“We were told that the minimum DDRB-recommended, below-inflation pay uplift of 6% for 2023/24 will be the only pay uplift for doctors and that this will not be awarded until the end of April. We were also informed that, despite health and pay being a devolved matter, any negotiations on further pay uplifts would only happen after ongoing Westminster pay negotiations with doctors in England had concluded.”

Saying this did not leave the room for engagement promised, they said the meeting had left them “extremely disappointed and disheartened, and further adds to the sense that the role doctors play in the health service is simply not valued.”

While the announcement of £685m for public sector pay was welcomed by some, they said it would not placate their members who were growing angrier by the day.

“Only an above inflation pay award and a commitment to work towards full pay restoration will solve the medical workforce crisis we have in Northern Ireland. We urge the Department of Health to meaningfully engage with us to achieve this as the health service depends on it.”

A Department of Health spokesperson said they were “acutely aware” of the pressures facing doctors and the concerns over pay.

“The Health Minister has been clear that resolving ongoing pay disputes is his immediate priority,” they said.

They added that in acknowledging the delay in the implementing the 2023/24 DDRB recommendations, Minister Swann has already moved to immediately offer to implement the DDRB recommendations for 23/24 pay for all doctors employed in HSC.

This represents a pay uplift of 6% for 2023/24 for all doctors, plus an extra £1,250 for junior doctors.

“The Department also established engagement with the BMA to discuss a proposed way forward on outstanding issues, including a commitment to further engagement on doctors pay, this would of course be better informed when there was greater clarity with respect to the outcome of the current industrial action being taken by doctors in England, however the Department is committed to ongoing engagement.”

Thursday’s agreement on allocating £550.6m to the Department of Health for pay awards an other pressures, they said, would now allow the Department to move forward in negotiations with unions.

“We remain hopeful that a satisfactory solution for all parties can be reached.”