Health unions have said they will consider a pay offer made by Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann after ‘positive’ talks on Tuesday (14 January).
Mr Swann said an additional £30 million would restore pay parity between nurses in Northern Ireland and nurses in England and Wales.
Unions including the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison are expected to respond to the offer on Thursday and may call off walkouts set for next week.
In a statement to the assembly, Mr Swann pledged to work ‘work urgently’ with unions to produce a ‘costed implemented plan’ within an agreed short period.
The strategy will aim to achieve the appropriate numbers and skills mix for the workforce by 2026, he said.
It will also ensure that staff ‘feel valued and rewarded’ and will work to improve ‘business intelligence’.
To achieve pay parity, an additional £30 million would be pulled from existing finances at Stormont, he said.
Mr Swann also noted a further £67 million will be necessary to meet pay requirements such as the national living wage in 2020/21.
The promises were made possible because Stormont’s political institutions were restored at the weekend after the collapse of a coalition between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party in 2017.
‘A sign of optimism’
There are almost 2,800 unfilled nursing posts within the health service in Northern Ireland and the RCN argues that pay has dropped by 15% in real terms in recent years.
In 2014, then-health minister Jim Wells said he had to ’exercise a degree of restraint’ on pay for healthcare workers for financial reasons.
Since then, a pay differential has developed with nurses in Northern Ireland currently earning around £2,000 less than colleagues in Scotland, and around £1,500 less than England and Wales.
Mr Swann said the recent talks are a ‘sign of optimism for the future’ but admitted there is ‘scepticism’ over how much the health minister can do for the health and social care service.
He continued: ‘Many good people doubt whether we can set party politics aside work and work together constructively. We shall see.
‘But maybe, just maybe, today will give the sceptics some pause for thought.’
Director of the RCN Pat Cullen said that ‘there is a long way to go’ but hopes that the developments ‘will be the start of a new era for health in Northern Ireland’ after ‘positive’ talks.
She added: ‘Resolving the difficulties in relation to safe staffing has been at the forefront of concerns for RCN members and we made it very clear to the Minister that this issue must be dealt with urgently.’
RCN chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair said: ‘For too long, pay for nursing staff in Northern Ireland has lagged behind other parts of the UK and today we have moved a huge step closer to ending that.’