Nurses belonging to the union Unison staged another 24-hour walkout today, as part of the UK-wide ongoing dispute over pay.
For the third time in recent months, health and care staff joined picket lines across Northern Ireland to protest the current pay deal from Westminster and to advocate for patient safety.
District nurse Nicola Bell, who was on a picket line at Shankill Road in Belfast, told Nursing Times that she was striking once again because nursing was “becoming unsafe” due to staff shortages.
“We really want to negotiate and we want to see an end to this”
“We’re so few and far between that we’re showing up to shifts and we’re being left in positions where our registration is at risk and our patients are at risk,” Ms Bell said.
She explained that on her team there should be at least four staff on duty per day, but most of the time there was “only one or potentially none”.
District nursing has historically been hard to recruit into, making the staffing problems difficult to address, warned Ms Bell.
“We’re such a specialised area of work, so we can’t just utilise agency and bank staff the same way as some of the wards and things can,” she said.
Ms Bell also noted that recruitment issues come against a backdrop where Northern Ireland’s major universities are not able to fill places on nursing courses.
Data published this month by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) found that nursing courses in Northern Ireland recorded a 17% decline in the number of applicants by the January 2023 deadline.
Ms Bell added that she believed the reason that public sector health and social care (HSC) organisations were struggling to recruit was because they “are not competitive”.
She said: “There’s so many other routes out there, there’s so many other options out there now for nurses to work – the private sector, going away or abroad.
“And it’s really concerning to know that we have nursing students who are saying that they are going to be qualifying, doing their six months, and then going away to Australia or Canada.”
Ms Bell said pay was a “vital” factor in recognising the importance of the nursing profession.
In December, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland awarded nurses working on HSC Agenda for Change contracts a pay rise of £1,400 for the 2022-23 financial year – the same that was put forward for England and Wales.
Unions in all four UK countries have been seeking to improve the deals implemented for NHS staff in their respective nations.
Governments in both Scotland and Wales have been able to prevent further strike action by meeting with health unions and negotiating new pay awards for 2022-23.
Ms Bell noted that many of her colleagues would accept a negotiated pay deal similar to those seen in the other devolved nations, in order to resolve the ongoing dispute.
“We really want to negotiate and we want to see an end to this, but we also want to see that we are valued as a profession – and I think that’s where the stumbling blocks are,” she said.
This is the third time that Unison nurses in Northern Ireland have walked out over pay, after staging a one-day strike last month and another in December.
They have also been taking action short of a strike, such as working to their contracts and not doing any overtime, for several weeks.
While nurses had “tried their best” to take part in action short of strike, staff shortages had made it hard to do, Ms Bell explained.
She said: “In reality, staff were doing an awful lot more than we probably should have been just to maintain the quality of our service, so it’s been really hard.”
However, Ms Bell said that despite the circumstances, she would continue to strike until things improve.
“I think it’s something that we have to stand up to, we have to keep moving on this because we’ve just have run out of options,” she said.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea echoed these feelings, warning that strikes would not be called off until health workers’ wages were “boosted this year” and talks were held to negotiate the next rise due in April.
She said: “Governments in other parts of the UK have shown what it’s possible to achieve with dialogue, and a commitment to boosting pay and tackling the staffing emergency.
“Ministers must change gear, find the funds to invest in the workforce, improve wages and resolve the dispute in the best interests of staff, the NHS and patients.”
However, a spokesperson for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said: “The Department of Health fully understands the frustration of staff across health and social care, who have worked in extremely challenging circumstances over the last three years and continue to do so.”
The spokesperson noted that this was a national dispute “which is only resolvable at national level”.
They said: “Northern Ireland has a policy of pay parity with England HSC workers covered by the Agenda for Change framework.
“Given that policy position, the absence of ministers and current budgetary realities, there is no scope for a resolution at local level.”
The UK Government has announced this afternoon that it will enter into a formal process of pay talks with the Royal College of Nursing, leading to the RCN pausing further strikes.