The chief executives of the six health trusts in Northern Ireland have called for an end to the “de facto pay freeze” affecting nurses and other clinicians in the country.
In a joint letter to the Northern Ireland secretary at Westminster, they warned that it was unfair that Health and Social Care (HSC) were still without a 2023-24 pay deal.
They wrote: “As chief executives, we care deeply about our workforce.
“We know just how much they gave during the pandemic.
“We are also very conscious of the toll being taken on them by the continuing severe pressures on services.
“It is unsustainable and unfair that they should be left with a de facto pay freeze during a cost-of-living crisis.
“This sends out entirely the wrong signal on how health and social care staff are valued by society.”
In this context, it was becoming “increasingly” difficult to retain staff, they said.
Budget constraints and the ongoing lack of a functioning executive in Northern Ireland have been cited as reasons preventing a deal being reached.
In contrast, NHS nurses in England, Wales and Scotland have all had a pay increase this year – meaning Northern Ireland nurses are now the lowest paid in the UK public sector.
In their letter, the chief executives noted the Department of Health in Northern Ireland’s claim that matching the 2023-24 Agenda for Change pay rise implemented in England would only be possible with “large scale cuts on an unprecedented scale”.
“No one wants that option and the department has undoubtedly been left in an impossible position,” the health trust leaders said.
Northern Ireland’s budget for 2023-24 was set by UK Government secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris.
It came amid the ongoing absence of ministers in post in Northern Ireland, which is still the case today.
This is due to a refusal by the Democratic Unionist Party to form a new executive, in protest of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol.
In their letter sent this week, the chief executives urged Mr Heaton-Harris to issue additional funding in order to resolve the HSC pay issue.
Nurses and other HSC staff from several different unions including Unison, Unite and Royal College of Midwives went on strike in September over the pay stalemate, and the chief executives said more industrial action was set to hit their services.
They warned that improving services and reducing waiting times for patients was ever more difficult with a “demoralised and depleted workforce” and industrial action taking place.
“Consequently, we are appealing directly to you to do all in your power to find a solution to the 2023-24 pay issue,” they said in their letter to Mr Heaton-Harris.
“This cannot be a subsidiary issue to the work being done to restore the [Northern Ireland] assembly, as important as that may be.”
Writing on social media platform X, the Northern Ireland Department of Health said it “welcomes this intervention from HSC trust chief executives”.
It added: “We fully agree that the current position with HSC staff pay is unsustainable and unfair.”
Meanwhile, also on X, Rita Devlin, director of Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Northern Ireland, said: “It is in no one’s interest to have a situation where [Northern Ireland] healthcare staff are the lowest paid in the UK.
“It is deeply unfair and shameful.”
She noted the strike action taken by nurses in 2019-20 to win pay parity with England and said staff were assured by political parties then that they would not be placed in this position again.
“Our people deserve better,” added Ms Devlin.
While the RCN has not taken part in the most recent strike action in Northern Ireland, the college still has a mandate and it has said that it is keeping the situation under review.
Responding to the letter, a Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: “The UK Government does not have any authority to negotiate pay in Northern Ireland, it will be for the Northern Ireland Department of Health to make final decisions on pay policies.
“Sustainable public finances are critical to pave the way for long awaited improvement and transformation of the public services that we all rely on and want to protect.
“It remains the government’s top priority to restore the executive and for locally accountable political leaders to take fundamental decisions on Northern Ireland’s public services and deliver better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Source : Nursingtimes