WITH fears surrounding patient safety and calls for increased staffing levels, thousands of nurses across Northern Ireland took industrial action on Wednesday and Friday past.
This was the second and third time the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), a union representing 9,000 nurses across the country, has taken industrial action since the start of December.
The union has planned a further three days of industrial action this month – January 20th, 22nd and 24th but claims that if its demands are met by the reformed Stormont Assembly, they will be called off
In the Southern Trust alone, the Minor Injuries Unit at the South Tyrone Hospital was closed on both Wednesday and Friday
On Wednesday, 8th January, 45 outpatient appointments were cancelled, a small number of surgeries were cancelled and three treatment rooms were closed. Some district nursing teams across the Southern Trust were also reduced
Despite the wintry weather conditions, a large of number of nurses and supporters gathered outside the Dungannon hospital to make their demands clear.
They were also supported by passing traffic with horns blaring in support as vehicles passed by.
Speaking to the Tyrone Courier at the picket line, the RCN’s UK Learning Rep lead for Northern Ireland, Francis Lavery explained why so many nurses felt industrial action was the only option left.
“A lot of people are saying it is all about pay parity (getting paid the same amount of money, for the same job, as nurses in the rest of the UK) which is part of it but it is fundamentally about safe staffing levels,” he said.
“Patient care is the most important issue. There are just under 2,800 unfilled nursing posts in the NHS in Northern Ireland and almost three quarter of nurses in Northern regularly work beyond their contracted hours.
“Money isn’t my God and I am on the front line to try and do my best for patients.”
He said that nurses across the country need to see change soon.
“The fact that so many nurses in the RCN have voted in support of industrial action for the first time in 103 years, speaks volumes because it is not just where I work, it is right across Northern Ireland,” said Francis.
“I find the reliance on agency staff is increasing. A lot of core staff are retiring or reducing their hours to do agency work, some staff are actually leaving permanent posts to go into agency work.
“The result is that there are less core staff available. We have a lot of junior staff coming in and it is great to have agency staff that help us but it is so challenging not having as many core staff as what we are used to.”
While unsure if a resolution will be forthcoming, Mr Lavery is hopeful that politicians back in Stormont will be able to help.
“Hopefully the politicians will work to move forward and get things back up and running at Stormont,” he said. “I think we are close to agreement. We get promises but we have to wait until those materialise and that is why we are out again today.
“We will be guided by people in our unions and will be guided by our experts on what ways are the best way forward but I am a nurse first and foremost and want to return to work as soon as possible.”
His words were echoed by a nurse practitioner from the Minor Injuries Unit who was also on strike.
“We are out on strike again today because the staffing levels are not adequate for the patient numbers,” she said.
“It is at the point where we need someone to look at our staffing levels, we need a workforce analysis to look at patient numbers and staffing levels. My husband and I are both nurses and this is very important to us.
“He works in intensive care and can't leave his patients as they are critically ill, I am doing this on behalf of both of us, to ensure staff levels and pay parity and also the need to start training more nurses.”
She continued: “Nursing student numbers were cut years ago in an attempt to 'save money' and now look where. We are bringing nurses in from everywhere. It is not right bringing nurses from third world countries and depleting their services it would also help our employment levels as well.
“The sooner we get a deal the better I am losing a days pay to be out and here and none of us want to be on strike but we need to be.”
A young theatre nurse told the Courier how conditions at present have left her and her colleagues deflated.
“We are out on strike because we are under enormous pressure in theatres and patient care is being compromised. We are seeking better pay and more appreciation of what we do.
“At the minute, everybody is working extra hours and trying to provide the best service we can. As nurses, we feel we are doing all we can with the resources we have.
“The entire situation is totally demoralising, it is not the situation we thought we were training for when we undertook this career. We just feel very undervalued.”
Speaking after he was appointed as the Minister for Health on Saturday, Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann confirmed he has requested a meeting with trade unions.
”I am happy to confirm that contact has been made with trade unions and I will be meeting with them as soon as possible this week. I’m looking forward to getting this dispute sorted right away. Obviously, the financial package for the new Executive and support from other Ministerial colleagues will be central to making that happen.
”We need our nurses and other health workers back at work. There is a massive challenge for all of us in making our health service better and our great staff have a vital role to play in that.”