WATCH: Northern Ireland's nurses to receive pay parity

First Minister Arlene Foster, Health Minister Robin Swann, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Finance Conor Murphy

By Michael McHugh, PA

Nurses will receive a pay rise in a "breakthrough" bid to end strike action which has paralysed the health service in Northern Ireland, the new Health Minister said.

Robin Swann pledged to restore salary parity with England for this year and next in one of the first actions of the new powersharing administration.

It is estimated to cost an extra £109 million.

Thousands of nurses walked out this month and last amid mounting anger over pay levels and understaffing.

Mr Swann said: "The breakthrough we all wanted has been achieved.

"This is a good day after some very difficult days."

Part of the cost for the current year is to be financed by drawing forward proposed allocations for future years.

Mr Swann said: "Additional funding has now been secured. Pay parity with England can be restored.

"Our nurses and other great health and social care workers can come off the picket line, can get back to the job that they love and do so well."

Stormont Executive ministers are expecting billions of pounds from the Treasury to finance the ambitious plans outlined in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, an accord tabled jointly by the UK and Irish governments.

Much of it will be used to address the multiple problems that have beset public services during the three-year powersharing impasse.

Top of the list is the high-profile pay dispute involving health care workers, and action to reduce spiralling hospital waiting lists.

Mr Swann said: "Decisive action has also been taken on the vital issue of staffing and my department is providing a written commitment to immediate high-level engagement with unions to produce a costed implementation plan on safe staffing within an agreed short period."

He said he was grateful to colleagues around the Executive table for helping to make it happen.

Ministers met on Tuesday morning.

Mr Swann said: "We have moved significantly and quickly to take action together.

"That is a sign of optimism for the future."

The Health Department has found an additional £79 million for this year but an extra £30 million is required, financed through drawing forward proposed funding allocations for future years.

Mr Swann said: "So while I am glad that it is not impacting on the funds available for other services this year, it is important to note that it has not been financed by an additional allocation to Northern Ireland."

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the extra £30 million was part of the financial settlement with the UK Government.

He said: "That issue is not complete, it is not over, and we intend to pursue that over the course of the next number of days and into the next week."

"If we get the necessary finances to run decent public services then we will not be into the previous pattern of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"If we are going to have a sustainable executive we need it politically sustainable but we also need it financially sustainable and that is the argument that we are bringing to the British Government and to the Treasury."

Meanwhile, First Minister Arlene Foster said she was glad to support the health minister.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "Today the new executive has delivered on our promise, delivered on our commitment to the healthcare staff.

"I think this is a hugely significant first step for this Executive.

"It sends out a very strong message in terms of our commitment to work together, to work for the health service, to transform the health service and to value the biggest asset which the health service has - which is the staff."

A joint health trade unions statement said they had a "meaningful" briefing with the health minister before his address to the assembly.

"We expect correspondence from the minister on the two substantial issues in the current dispute, pay parity and safe staffing.

"Tomorrow we will spend time at the Department for Health considering the details on what is required for the restoration of pay parity.

"We will take the minister's correspondence to our respective executives this week and thereafter regional trade unions will make a public statement."

Unison health workers' union head of bargaining Anne Speed said: "We genuinely hope that justice for our members and patients alike is imminent.

"Their courage and tenacity has put the health and wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland at the heart of a new political agenda.

"We remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached and that our dispute can be resolved."

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland has called an extraordinary meeting of its board on Thursday to consider ongoing industrial action following assurances by Health Minister Robin Swann over pay parity and safe staffing.

In a statement, the RCN said they will consider formal communication on safe staffing and pay parity which they await from the minister.

"On receipt of this correspondence, the suspension of strike action scheduled for next week may be proposed," the RCN said.

"We are pleased that the minister has listened carefully and responded quickly to our concerns, and that the situation in relation to pay parity has now been resolved.

"We are also satisfied that real progress has been made in relation to safe staffing and recruitment and retention of nursing staff.

"The minister has committed to a costed implementation plan for safe staffing within an agreed short period. There is a long way to go and we will work closely with the minister and Department of Health to find a sustainable way forward."

 

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