Strike action from health unions in Northern Ireland has been paused following an offer from the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland to discuss pay for Health and Social Care (HSC) staff.
In a breakthrough moment for HSC staff, it has been confirmed that Chris Heaton-Harris will meet with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and health unions on Wednesday 5 April.
“Health workers across Northern Ireland will not be left behind”
Nurse pay developments in the Northern Ireland are currently furthest behind compared to the other UK countries.
In December, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland finally confirmed that it would implement the NHS Pay Review Body’s recommendations for 2022-23.
This deal was an average 4.75% pay award for Agenda for Change staff – an uplift of at least £1,400.
Progress has since been made in the other UK countries on NHS pay for both 2022-23 and 2023-24.
Health unions in Northern Ireland have collectively been calling for talks to take place, to ensure health workers in the country do not once again fall out of pay parity with their England counterparts.
In particular, they wanted clarity about whether the new pay offer in England, announced on 16 March and covering 2022-23 and 2023-24, would result in new money from Barnett consequentials for Northern Ireland, to increase health worker pay.
The Department of Health in Northern Ireland had previously said that while it regretted the industrial action that was taking place, it was not in a position to make nurses and other health staff a formal pay offer.
They said the reason for this was because its budget for 2023-24 was still yet to be confirmed but that it was expecting a “significant financial shortfall”.
As a result, members from the union Unison went on strike today, and further strikes were also due next week.
However, now that a date for negotiations has been put forward, both Unison and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have announced that strike action planned for 3 April will be paused to allow the talks to take place.
Unison Northern Ireland’s regional secretary, Patricia McKeown, said: “Our members determination to escalate strike action today and again on Monday finally got the message through to those in power.
“Health workers across Northern Ireland will not be left behind.”
Unison has demanded confirmation from the government that this meeting will be “a genuine engagement” which will result in an meaningful offer which the union can take back to its members.
It also confirmed that members will continue to take part in action short of strike while negotiations take place.
Meanwhile, Karen Murray, RCM director, said that the union would enter into these talks “with an open mind to come to an agreement.”
She said: “We have paused action, but the Westminster government must be under no illusions; we have a very strong mandate for industrial action which we will not hesitate to use if these talks do not result in an offer that we feel we can put to our members.”
“If this situation is not resolved urgently, we will be considering what further action, including strike, we must take”
Also commenting on the development about negotiations, Rita Devlin, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said: “Nursing staff working in Northern Ireland have been angry and frustrated at the continuing lack of clarity in relation to a pay offer for health care staff in Northern Ireland alongside the worsening conditions being experienced by both patients and staff across all areas of health and social care.”
Ms Devlin said it was “scandal” that on the last day of the financial year, there was still “no budget for health and no pay rise for workers”.
Members from the RCN in Northern Ireland went on strike in December to protest the below-inflation pay award, Ms Devlin noted.
She said: “We are clear that it will be completely unacceptable to our members if they are not offered at least the same pay award as nursing staff working in England.
“Falling out of pay parity was exactly why our members first took strike action in 2019 and they will not be prepared to accept this again.
“If this situation is not resolved urgently, we will be considering what further action, including strike, we must take to ensure our members are not left behind again.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said: “The department welcomes the suspension of strike action scheduled for Monday April 3.
“We can confirm that departmental officials will be attending the meeting between the secretary of state and trade union representatives next week.”