A nurse who went on strike three years ago to fight for better pay and improved staffing has told Nursing Times why he is getting ready to do the same again in the coming weeks.
Conor McDowell, a senior nurse manager at a large acute trust in Northern Ireland, said that of his 12 years as a nurse he had never seen health and social care services or the morale of colleagues “so bad”.
He was among members of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland who successfully took to the picket lines in 2019 to achieve pay parity with colleagues in the rest of the UK and a plan for safer staffing levels.
Mr McDowell, who is also a RCN Northern Ireland board member, said: “There was lots of positive action from that strike action three years ago [but], unfortunately, we’re back in that position again.”
Similarly to 2019, Northern Ireland is currently without a fully functioning executive, because of disagreements related to the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol. It means a pay award has not been implemented for Health and Social Care (HSC) staff this year.
In the summer, former health minster Robin Swann announced his intentions to accept the recommendations of the NHS Pay Review Body to uplift the full-time equivalent salaries of all Agenda for Change staff by at least £1,400 for 2022-23. This is in line with the award given to nurses in England and Wales.
“We want to see our public being treated better”
However, at the time, Mr Swann said his hands were tied by budget uncertainties in the country.
This has meant that the pay of health workers in Northern Ireland was once again “out of kilter” with the rest of the UK, said Mr McDowell.
Nurses and other health members of the RCN, Unison and GMB have secured strike mandates in Northern Ireland this winter amid a UK-wide ongoing dispute over pay.
The RCN, which has been campaigning for a pay increase 5% above RPI inflation, has today announced it will be holding strikes there in two dates in December.
Mr McDowell, who will be joining the picket lines once again, said nurses were prepared to take strike action to “get our voice heard”.
Alongside a fair pay rise, nurses wanted to see “safer staffing levels”, including more nurses.
“What we fundamentally want is enough nurses to care for patients,” said Mr McDowell, who pointed to the around 2,500 nurse vacancies in the country.
He stressed that if nurses were “paid appropriately, they will stay in [their] positions” and they will be retained.
Like many others across the profession right now, Mr McDowell was concerned for the health and wellbeing of his colleagues amid poor pay and workplace pressures.
“We have nurses eating out of food banks, we have nurses using payday loans, getting themselves in debt, just to keep themselves afloat. That is just totally unacceptable,” he said.
He added: “I have never in my 12 years of practice seen health and social care so bad and I have never seen morale of colleagues so bad.”
Workplace pressures and staff shortages meant nurses were unable to provide the level of care they would like to, which was negatively impacting their mental health, he said.
“I really do worry about the psychological impact, the psychological safety of our nurses, and how this is impacting on them,” said Mr McDowell.
“There will inevitably be an impact on patient care”
Department of Health spokesperson
“Because when you can’t provide care, that has a significant burden on your mental health and on your psychological safety, and leaving care undone is happening every day.”
Overarchingly, the campaign was about improving patient safety, noted Mr McDowell.
“This is about much more than nursing, and while I, as a registered nurse, want to see my colleagues paid for the invaluable work they do, I also want to see the public being given a better deal,” he added.
“We want to see our public being treated better.”
Mr McDowell reflected on the “overwhelming” support received from the public during the previous strikes in 2019 and believed that, again, the “public are behind us”.
He said staff were now proactively “getting ready” for this next walk out and added: “It is a workforce in action.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Department of Health said: “The Department of Health shares the frustration of Northern Ireland health care staff at the absence to date of a pay award for this year.
“We greatly value our health care staff and very much regret that so many of them believe industrial action is necessary.”
They added: “Northern Ireland’s health and social care system is planning for a very difficult winter period.
“In the event of strike action, the Department and HSC trusts will work closely with trade unions with a view to protecting critical services as much as possible.
“However, there will inevitably be an impact on patient care, and further impairment of already highly pressurised services.”