Thousands of nurses in Northern Ireland staged a 12-hour walk-out on January 8 in a longstanding dispute over pay and safe staffing. This was after a similar strike by 9,000 nurses on December 19 had brought no resolution.
On Friday, another strike action proceeded as planned. It was joined by the members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and Unison members – the largest union of health and social services staff in Northern Ireland.
No choice but to strike, nurses say
This is the first strike action in the 103-year history of the RCN. Most of the nurses interviewed on the picket line said that they don’t want to strike and would rather have been looking after their patients – but that they had been left with no choice.
“We can no longer stand by and watch patients not being given the care that they deserve.”
With nursing positions only 40-50% filled, they are working extra hours by arriving early, leaving late and missing lunch breaks. They emphasized that they cannot provide proper care for their patients, while themselves suffering from burnout.
One nurse on the picket line in Enniskillen said that, in his 25 years of nursing, things had never been as bad. “We’re here because we’ve gotten to the situation where we’ve been pushed and pushed. We’ve continued to complain about safe staffing levels and nothing has been done,” he said. “We can no longer stand by and watch patients not being given the care that they deserve.”
Why the nurses are striking
Health services in Northern Ireland are at breaking point with long waiting lists for beds and surgical procedures. In emergency departments, patients wait for 12 hours or longer to be seen, with trolleys lining every corridor. The problem has been escalating for years, particularly since severe budget cuts in 2014. In the meantime, the demand for services continues to rise. Furthermore, the country hasn’t had a functional government to make policy decisions, including those on pay rises for public service staff, for almost three years.
One of the nurse’s demands is to pay parity with nurses in England, Scotland, and Wales. Nurses in Northern Ireland earn up to $5000 per year less than those in the rest of Great Britain. Pay deals agreed to for all National Health Service employees in Great Britain haven’t been implemented in Northern Ireland because of the collapse of its government.
The lack of pay parity, together with the work pressures, are driving nurses in Northern Ireland to look for jobs elsewhere – contributing further to the staff shortages.
Effect of the strikes on health services
Emergency departments remained open, but thousands of appointments and surgical procedures were canceled. The affected patients were contacted in advance and informed that their appointments would be rescheduled.
Managers of Health Trusts, who are responsible for the administration of the hospitals, have acknowledged that there is a health service crisis and that nurses have legitimate reasons to strike. They claimed, however, that this week’s strikes could push the health system over the edge – especially with the increased winter demand on health services. On the night before the walk-out, they called on nurses to cancel the strike in a manner that, according to RCN Director Pat Cullen, was pointing a finger at nurses for the crisis in the health system.
“I want to categorically say it’s absolutely not the nurses’ fault. Nurses do feel bullied by people saying ‘enough is enough’ and that they should call off this strike action,” Cullen said in an interview. “The voice of nursing is trying to be heard loud and clear on behalf of their patients and those in senior managerial positions came out last night and tried to silence them again.”
There appears to be little hope of a resolution for the dispute. The Department of Health has indicated that it is prepared to get back into negotiations with the unions but at the same time ruled out any discussion on pay.