Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members in Northern Ireland have begun a second day of strike action today (8 January).
They are taking industrial action in response to unsafe staffing levels and a lack of pay parity with colleagues across the UK, with the RCN pointing to almost 2,800 vacant nursing posts and nurse pay dropping by 15% in real terms in recent years.
Over 2,000 appointments have been cancelled alongside wider disruption including a reduced district nursing service with at least 850 visits rescheduled.
Additional disruption to health and social care services is expected on 10 January when another 12-hour walkout is set to take place and trade union Unison also plans to strike.
The Health and Social Care Board warned that reduced staffing levels will ‘further compound pressures’ in emergency departments, which will remain open but are already under ‘extreme’ winter pressure.
It also urged the public to only use emergency departments if they are ‘seriously ill or injured’ and to otherwise access alternative services.
Offer of ‘fresh talks’
The Department of Health issued a statement on Monday (6 January) offering trade unions including the RCN ‘fresh talks’ on staffing investment and urging them to defer this week’s industrial action.
In the statement, parliament secretary Richard Pengelly said that the department has ‘repeatedly made clear that our door remained open for discussions’ with trade unions around staffing.
He said that industrial action could not change the issue of pay parity, which he argued ‘is a matter for consideration by a minister’.
He continued: ‘In terms of political resolution, all main political parties have already publicly supported the calls for parity with England, and talks are ongoing about restoration of the devolved institutions. It is only that process that can provide the mechanism for a sustainable solution on pay.’
In response, Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said the RCN has been asking for a dialogue with the Department of Health ‘for a long time’.
She said that the Department of Health has known about the industrial action dates since November last year when 92% of members voted to take strike action and 96% voted to take industrial action.
She added that nurses had been left with ‘no choice’.
‘It is clear that people in Northern Ireland are not getting the care and treatment they need,’ she continued.
‘Today, our members in Northern Ireland are making clear to those in power that they and their patients will not be ignored. We all wish to see a rapid solution to this crisis. However, this will not be secured by trying to blame nurses for the consequences of the decisions made by those in power.’
The action follows a historic walkout on 18 December that saw RCN members strike for the first time in the organisation’s 103-year history.