Threat of all-out nursing strike looming closer, union chief warns
THE new chief of the biggest nursing trade union in Northern Ireland has warned that a threatened strike is imminent - unless "unacceptable" work and pay conditions are overhauled.
Pat Cullen, who took up post as director of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) a fortnight ago, said they are being forced to take action due to the impact of a staffing crisis with a record 2,500 posts now lying empty.
It will be the first time in the union's 103-year-old history that its members have planned for an all-out strike.
This week fresh talks will begin with civil servants at the Department of Health to agree a pay deal that brings the north's nurses into line with their counterparts across the NHS and in the Republic.
But Ms Cullen said that the deadline for an agreement is fast approaching, with the end of next month earmarked as the final cut-off.
The development comes three months after 37,000 nurses and midwives in the Republic staged a series of strike days over the same issues, an action which severely impacted on hospital and community services.
When asked about the potential fallout of the RCN action on patients in the north, Ms Cullen told the Irish News:
"Basic care and treatment is already being delayed at present - if we do not take action now it will get worse and worse.
"Our vacancy rate is sitting at 12 per cent, its highest ever with 2,500 jobs not filled and that's excluding the independent sector. The reality is that we do not have enough key nursing staff.
"This is being felt right across the sector - from school nurses to hospital nurses to those working in learning disability. No preventative work is being carried out anymore, we only deal with crises".
The former head of nursing at the Public Health Agency said that in her 30 years in the profession she had never felt such a "palpable" anger and frustration among her colleagues at their working conditions.
Ms Cullen also pointed to the stalemate over the pay dispute.
"These talks (with the Department of Health) have been going on for the past 18 months but they are only for the current financial year, which has already started. in England, they have a three-year deal but here it's a year-on-year discussion.
"The position with unsafe staffing and pay is no longer acceptable."
The RCN has held public meetings over the past week to inform people about their concerns, during which nurses have also given personal accounts about the difficulties they are tackling and how care is being compromised.
Another meeting will take place at the Signal Centre in Bangor tonight while the final two will be held in the Guildhall in Derry tomorrow and the Europa hotel in Belfast on Thursday. The events begin at 7.30pm and are expected to run for 90 minutes.