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Editorial: Health pressures require urgent action

NEWS that nurses in Northern Ireland are to be balloted on a new round of strike action is further evidence of the enormous pressures in the health service and wider impact of the cost of living crisis.

Staff across the UK are being asked if they are prepared to walk out over the issue of pay.

It is less than three years since nurses in Northern Ireland took similar action, in the first strike in the 100-year history of the Royal College of Nursing.

Public support at that time helped propel the DUP and Sinn Féin back into government through the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

However, the same old problems at Stormont would soon re-emerge and the latest threat of industrial action comes as the devolved institutions are again in limbo.

Nurses in England, Scotland and Wales have expressed anger at below-inflation pay offers at a time when inflation is predicted to rise as high as 18 per cent.

Meanwhile, staff in Northern Ireland have yet to even receive a formal award for 2022/23 due to the absence of an executive.

Health minister Robin Swann has warned his current budget is unable to meet pay demands, with the department facing an overspend of around £400m this year.

Around half this sum relates to planned below-inflation pay increases, while £80m is needed to address waiting list pressures and £120m to deal with issues such as higher energy bills.

A draft Stormont budget proposed a significant increase in funding for health but was not agreed by the power-sharing government before its collapse in February.

Every day since then has brought with it further evidence of the damage being caused by the DUP's ongoing boycott of the institutions.

While a senior civil servant has now intervened to increase spending limits on departments, it is only a short-term measure and cannot re-distribute unspent funds between departments.

The RCN has said that despite taking strike action in the recent past, the situation is worse than ever as hospitals are overwhelmed and experienced staff leave the service due to burn-out.

The last time nurses staged a walk-out, politicians were not long in returning to their own desks. It is now more important that ever that a government is restored at Stormont and the vital work of rebuilding the health service and supporting workers at this time of crisis can begin.

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