Northern Ireland has announced that NHS staff on Agenda for Change contracts will receive the 3% pay rise recommended by the NHS Pay Review Body, following months of delays.
However, unions have raised fears the award is not enough to retain experienced healthcare staff amid workforce shortages and high demand on services.
The country’s health minister Robin Swann said it would cost around £88.24m to implement and would reach pay packets ‘as quickly as possible’, backdated to April 2021. The decision was made after additional funding was made available in recent weeks, he added.
The 3% pay rise matches the recommendation made by the NHS Pay Review Body, which advises the Government on NHS pay, and brings Northern Ireland in line with England and Wales.
Mr Swann said a further one-off bonus for most Agenda for Change staff might be possible if the budget allows, although the Department of Health ‘remains under considerable financial pressure’.
He said: ‘I am willing to prioritise a bid, as part of January monitoring, for additional resource to support a further non-consolidated award for most Agenda for Change staff in 2021/22. Any additional non-consolidated award will need to be approved by the Department of Finance.
‘Like all my Executive colleagues, I have to operate within budgetary constraints set by the Treasury. While there are many conflicting demands on health spending, I am clear that properly rewarding staff is an important priority,’ he added.
Northern Ireland also gave healthcare staff a £735 bonus earlier this year in recognition of their work during the Covid-19 pandemic, while Scotland and Wales awarded similar one-off awards. England remains the only country not to have paid a bonus.
In addition, Mr Swann committed to holding a joint summit with trade unions and employers to look at pay and retention in early 2022, ahead of engagement on the 2022/23 pay award.
But Rita Devlin, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: ‘While this pay award falls far below what RCN members believe is fair, we are relieved to finally receive it and to retain pay parity with colleagues in England and Wales.’
She said the RCN will now consult members to give them an ‘opportunity to speak up for their patients and outline the impact of such a meagre pay award on them and where they work’.
Likewise, Terry Thomas, assistant secretary Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, which represents public services, said the award is not a ‘reasonable or fair offer’.
Mr Swann continued: ‘I want to once again place on record my gratitude and admiration to all who work in our health and social care system. So many staff have worked extremely long hours under enormous pressure during the pandemic.
‘Staff are the backbone of our health and social care services and I want to recognise their continued professionalism in delivering high-quality effective care to people across Northern Ireland.’
The RCN also launched an indicative ballot in Scotland, which found most RCN members on Agenda for Change contracts have said they would take industrial action over their 4% pay rise.
The offer also comes amid an ongoing trade dispute from the RCN against the Scottish Government, lodged in June because of ‘serious concerns’ over pay. And RCN Wales has lodged a formal trade dispute with the Welsh Government over its 3% pay award for nursing staff.