‘Angry and frustrated’ nurses in Northern Ireland could be ‘forced’ to take further strike action unless a new pay offer is put on the table soon, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has warned.
In a statement from the RCN Northern Ireland Board, published this week, it stressed it would ‘not hesitate to move quickly’ to organise more strikes if a new offer for Health and Social Care (HSC) staff was not forthcoming.
This week, the board met to discuss the ongoing ‘stalemate’ regarding pay in Northern Ireland, which has led to concerns about nursing staff in the country once again falling out of pay parity with its colleagues in the other UK countries.
The current situation is complicated by the fact that Northern Ireland does not currently have a fully functioning government executive, meaning unions have been left unable to negotiate properly on pay.
In recent weeks, health unions have met with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, to express their concerns, but this has so far yielded little progress towards a new pay offer in the country.
The RCN board said Mr Heaton-Harris had ‘committed to a series of actions including seeking clarification on our serious concerns about a budget for health and the offer of a pay award to resolve our current dispute’.
But the RCN was now having to wait to meet again with the secretary of state to ‘see if the government is in a position to set a budget and make a pay offer’.
HSC nurses in Northern Ireland were only offered a pay rise in line with what had previously been given to NHS staff in England, in December, receiving a pay rise of at least £1,400.
However, more recently, the UK Government has put forward an improved deal for nurses on Agenda for Change contracts in England, and this week it was announced that the Welsh Government had also put forward a new and revised pay offer for NHS nurses there. NHS nurses in Scotland were also given an improved deal and have already accepted a deal for the 2023/24 pay round as well.
‘There is no doubt that nursing staff are angry and frustrated at the absence of any pay offer for Northern Ireland,’ said the RCN Northern Ireland Board.
It added that it was ‘deeply distressing’ that falling out of pay parity with the other UK nations was ‘a very real prospect’.
‘We have no-one to advocate for nursing staff and patients in Northern Ireland. Quite simply, we believe that we have been left to sink in what is a complete mess,’ the statement said.
The board also claimed that, despite ‘warnings’ from various healthcare organisations, ‘nothing tangible has been done’ to try and resolve issues faced by nurses, including pay.
During the board meeting this week, the RCN’s rejection of a new pay offer for NHS nursing staff in England was also discussed.
The RCN last week revealed plans for a 48-hour walk out of nurses in England, with no derogations in place, on the early May bank holiday.
In its statement, the Northern Ireland board said it wanted to make clear that ‘nothing is off the table and that nursing staff in Northern Ireland may also be forced to take this action if we do not get a pay offer soon’.
It added that ‘as RCN elected representatives, we are making it clear that we will not hesitate to move quickly to further strike action if no offer is forthcoming’.
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said: ‘The secretary of state has no authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland.
‘The pressures affecting Northern Ireland health services demonstrate the pressing need to have locally accountable political leaders in place to take fundamental decisions on Northern Ireland’s public services and deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland.’
They added that Northern Ireland’s finances ‘are not on a sustainable footing’.
‘It remains the secretary of state’s hope that the parties will recognise the importance of getting back to work so that an executive is in place to take the long-neglected and necessary decisions to address the challenges facing the public sector at this critical time,’ they said.
A Department of Health in Northern Ireland spokesperson said: ‘The department fully understands the frustrations of staff and the severe challenges they have been working under.
‘There is currently no health budget in place for 2023/24. We are also awaiting clarity on the extent of any UK Government funding for a new pay offer for Northern Ireland health staff.’
They added that the department was involved in ongoing discussions between unions and the secretary of state and said it would ‘continue to pursue every available avenue to secure a resolution’.