Ambulance strike 'could lead to 999 delays'
A 24-hour strike by ambulance staff may lead to delays in 999 response times, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) has warned.
The Unite union, which represents about 250 NIAS staff, is staging the stoppage because of a pay dispute. The day-long strike began at midnight.
The NIAS said its ability to deliver an emergency service would be affected.
It appealed to members of the public to call 999 only in "real emergencies" when they believe a life is at risk.
It said the emergency calls it receives during the strike will be prioritised and ambulances will be "sent to the most critically injured or clinically ill patients first".
"The public may, immediately, notice a delay in their call being answered by our control staff and there will be delays in ambulance response as the trust anticipates a reduced level of cover for the 24-hour period," its statement said.
Unite's NIAS membership includes paramedics, control room staff and some non-operational staff.
The union is staging the strike in a dispute over a pay rise that they say has already been given to health workers in all other parts of the UK except Northern Ireland.
A department of health spokesperson said: "In Northern Ireland despite our offers to negotiate, local trade unions had not been prepared to talk to us about options for a 2015/16 pay deal, dissatisfied with what their English colleagues accepted in 2014/15.
"The department wrote in early January and February inviting unions to begin discussions, sought to engage with unions at the start of March, and recently issued a further invitation to seek to commence pay discussions as soon as trade union availability permits.
"While we would like to be in a position to have done more in 2014-15, it is important to recognise staff received a minimum of 1% extra with the average rise through incremental progression being 3.7% and some staff receiving 6.7% more. This was the same settlement as in England."
The spokesperson added that "no decisions" had yet been taken on pay increases for 2015-16 in Northern Ireland.
Unite's 24-hour stoppage will coincide with a work-to-rule action staged by other ambulance staff who are members of Unison.
Unite national officer Kevin McAdam said: "Unite members represent 25% of the NIAS workforce and their strike action, in conjunction with that of Unison members, is likely to result in significant service disruption."
He told BBC Radio Ulster that his union "would ask people to understand that this campaign is not aimed at harming them and we will ensure that's an absolute minimum".
"It's about making the people in Stormont realise that they have to hold to their promises and honour the pay review body payments," he said.
Mr McAdam said ambulance staff were "particularly aggrieved" after they were prevented from joining a wider public service strike earlier this year.
Paramedics were ruled out of strike action on 13 March when management declared a "major incident" due to critical ambulance staffing levels.
At the time, NIAS management said they had been forced to take the measure "to maintain a safe level of ambulance cover".