Thousands of Northern Ireland nurses stage 12-hour strike over pay
By Michael McHugh, PA
Picket lines have been set up across Northern Ireland as thousands of nurses strike over pay.
The unprecedented action saw around 9,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) walk out for the next 12 hours, supported by thousands of other healthcare workers.
Routine medical appointments were cancelled, minor injury units closed and there will be delays to some ambulance responses. Social services workers also took industrial action.
Nurses in Northern Ireland are paid less than their counterparts in England and Wales.
Around half are considering leaving the profession because of pressure caused by under-staffing, with one in every eight posts vacant, a union said.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: "This is a moment that every nurse wishes had never come, but, faced with an abject failure to tackle unsafe staffing levels and severe pay inequality with colleagues from across the UK, our members in Northern Ireland are saying enough is enough.
"Nurses are taking a stand for their patients, and also for their colleagues, and it is about time that the powers that be finally sat up and took notice because the crisis in the HSC (Health and Social Care) cannot be allowed to continue.
"To every one of our members in Northern Ireland taking this stand, I want you to know that the RCN, and its entire membership, are right behind you."
The health authorities are unable to break the deadlock since no ministers are in place to take decisions in the devolved parliament at Stormont.
Civil servants running public services cannot find enough extra cash to satisfy the RCN, while just under 2,800 posts remain unfilled.
Spending on temporary agency staff to fill gaps has doubled.
A newly-qualified registered nurse in Northern Ireland earns £1,875 less than the same role in Scotland and £1,419 less than in England and Wales. For a specialist nurse, the difference is up to £4,677, the RCN said.
Last year the NHS in Northern Ireland spent £52 million on agency nurses and the RCN believes that money could be reallocated to tackle shortfalls in permanent workforce numbers.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has said that finding a solution will be among his top priorities during talks he has called with the local political parties.
A special summit on health is due to be held on Thursday.
On the eve of the strike, Sinn Fein criticised Mr Smith for not meeting them in an 11th-hour bid to avert the action. The Northern Ireland Secretary has said health is a devolved matter.
Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, Northern Ireland's two largest parties, suffered some reverses in last week's General Election.
They face another Assembly election if they do not agree by next month to return to powersharing and retake the tiller over increasingly-stretched public services.
Nearly 300,000 people in Northern Ireland were on a waiting list for a first appointment with a consultant, according to Department of Health figures published last summer.
Industrial action is also planned on Wednesday by the Unison, Unite and Nipsa trade unions, which cover ambulance paramedics and jobs including cleaning, portering, catering and administration.
Services like cancer care will be exempted.
A spokesman for Health and Social Care (HSC) organisations said: "Regrettably, as a result of the widespread nature of the strike, numerous appointments and treatments have been cancelled and many services across our hospitals and the community care sector have had to be stood down or reduced.
"We sincerely apologise in advance for the distress this action will cause to everyone impacted, especially our patients, service users and family members."
The South Tyrone Hospital Minor Injury Unit (MIU), Mid Ulster MIU, Bangor MIU and Ards MIU will all be closed.
All emergency departments will remain open as normal.
All patients and service users affected by cancellations of appointments and service closures have been notified by their local health trust, which runs services, and appointments will be rescheduled.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service will be prioritising 999 calls and those calls which are less serious in nature, potentially, face a delay in response times.