WATCH: NI Secretary to meet with unions after greeting staff on the picket line

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By Rebecca Black, PA and Q Radio News

The Northern Ireland Secretary will meet unions later as industrial action by healthcare workers continues.

Julian Smith described the continuing absence of a Stormont health minister while the sector descends into crisis as "unacceptable".

He was speaking amid waves of industrial action by health worker across Northern Ireland in protest at pay and staffing levels, which they claim are "unsafe".

Yesterday Mr.Smith met with workers at the Ulster Hospital, who posted videos of their interaction online. 



Mr Smith also met civil servants and trade unions in Belfast on Wednesday.

The workers are taking action over pay and staffing levels.

There has been strike action as well as work to rule across the week, causing thousands of surgeries and appointments to be cancelled.

Asked to comment on the situation, Mr Smith told the BBC that he was "extremely sorry" that the strike was affecting patients, families and workers.

Devolved government has been collapsed for almost three years following a break down in relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

In the absence of ministers, senior civil servants have been left to lead departments.

The Northern Ireland Secretary insisted he is doing what he can within his powers to "move this forward".

"I do not think this is an acceptable situation and that's why since I took this job I have been working flat out to try to get the executive moving," he said.

"Now we need to solve this situation, that needs to be done now and I accept that.

"It is an unacceptable situation and that's why I am saying I will do whatever I can within the powers that I have to help the Northern Ireland Civil Service move this forward, and that's including speaking with the trade unions over the coming days."

He added: "This area of health is a devolved matter so the decisions have to be taken by the NI Civil Service, they are working in difficult circumstances because Stormont's not running.

"But I am working with them to see if we can find a way through."

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