The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has confirmed that it will not be making a pay offer to nurses and other Health and Social Care (HSC) staff for 2023-24.
The department set out a series of measures yesterday that are to be implemented following the 2023-24 budget announcement earlier this month by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
In the budget, Chris Heaton-Harris put forward £7.3bn for health, a similar level to the previous financial year, which the Department of Health said made no allowance for pay demands or inflation.
In addition, Mr Heaton-Harris announced that, if the UK government allocated any additional funding to Northern Ireland through Barnett consequentials, it would be spent on clearing the country’s debt.
Not only will nursing staff not receive a pay offer for 2023-24, there will also be no improvement on the average 4.75% pay award that was implemented last year for 2022-23 – equivalent to a £1,400 uplift.
In a letter sent yesterday to party health spokespersons, health department permanent secretary Peter May said the recent budget set by the secretary of state had projected a funding gap of some £732m.
Mr May explained that, with “sustained effort across the HSC system”, it would be possible to make savings of up to £260m “without long-term irrevocable damage to services”.
However, he warned that this would still leave a funding gap of £472m, of which £375m would be needed to fully implement the English NHS pay deal in Northern Ireland.
Funding this pay offer under the current budget “would require large scale cuts on an unprecedented scale”, he said, with severe and lasting implications for health and social care services.
He added: “This means that, as things currently stand, it will not be possible to offer a pay award. I am very aware of the potential impact this could have on staff and on industrial relations.
“This is not the position we would want to be in: appropriate reward and recognition for our staff is clearly an important part of demonstrating that we value the work that they undertake.”
“Decisions are required that we do not wish to take and that are not in the best interests of the health and social care system”
Yesterday, the Department of Health also published an equality impact assessment on the 2023-24 budget outcome, which confirmed that its current position on pay would be kept under review.
However, it warned that, without significant additional funding being made available, any pay offer would “inevitably fall short of expectations”.
The document also detailed an additional £100m in cost reduction measures on top of the £260m already announced.
Among those was a commitment to cutting funding for waiting list initiatives in the country, as well as cutting funding for community and voluntary organisations.
This comes on top of the already agreed cuts to HSC services, which include reducing nursing and midwifery student places to their 2020 figures.
Mr May explained in the letter that the department was in an “impossible position being asked to fulfill conflicting responsibilities”.
He said: “This involves trying to balance our responsibilities to live within the budget we have been given, act in the public interest and safeguard services.
“Decisions are required that we do not wish to take and that are not in the best interests of the health and social care system.”
A public consultation on the cuts laid out in the equality impact assessment will run for 12 weeks.
The department said the outcome of the consultation will be used to determine if further mitigation measures are possible, and to inform allocation of additional funding, should it become available.
Responding to the announcement, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary, Gerry Murphy said: “Every single day brings the announcement of another salami slice of misery from government departments or a public body for the people of Northern Ireland.”
He added: “Unless Norther Ireland’s secretary of state, Chris Heaton-Harris, takes decisive action to restore the executive and Assembly beyond random punishments of the weak and vulnerable, then trade unionists will do what any decent person would do when faced with a bully – confront them and engage them with arguments for justice and industrial action in the cause of fairness and decency.”
Unions, including the Royal College of Nursing and Unison, had previously paused their strike action in Northern Ireland to try and negotiate a better pay offer for HSC staff.
However, due to the lack of a functioning executive in Northern Ireland, they were not able to negotiate in the same way as their colleagues in other UK countries.
Last week, RCN members demonstrated outside Stormont, the parliament buildings in Belfast, to voice their anger about the lack of political leadership in the country and to demand formal pay talks.
Health unions are set to meet with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland tomorrow, but it is not known what the discussions will be about.
The RCN was contacted for comment.