Northern Ireland

Stormont deal: Health union 'needs reassurance' on staffing

Pat Cullen
Image caption Ms Cullen described the meeting as "very productive"

The director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) says she does not have enough reassurance about safe staffing to propose an end to strike action.

Health workers in Northern Ireland have been staging industrial action in protest against pay and staffing.

On Tuesday, trade unions had a "positive" meeting with Health Minister Robin Swann, who offered £30m to restore pay parity.

Talks with the Department of Health continued into Wednesday night.

They were said to have ended on an "upbeat" note, however, Pat Cullen of the RCN said it was "deeply concerning" that after her meeting with Mr Swann, she spoke to departmental officials who said that there "may be difficulties with the minister committing to the issues of safe staffing".

The unions are expected to see their individual executives on Thursday.

Nurses are due to strike again on three days next week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Ms Cullen said she could not suspend planned strike action for next week unless there is "a formal commitment on safe staffing that will deliver for patients and nurses".

"At this point in time, I do not have enough detail and reassurance that I could put to the Northern Ireland board and propose that we suspend our strike action," she said.

The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) union said industrial action "will remain in place until this dispute is resolved to the satisfaction of members".

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme, the new health minister said he would meet the unions later on Wednesday for further clarity.

He said he thought reassurances "had gone far enough" but he would work with health unions and added that there were "no guarantees about the financial package that is coming".

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Media captionHealth strike: Robin Swann confirms pay package for nurses and health workers

But he stressed his commitment to health staff who he praised for the care they showed his son, who was born with a heart defect.

"I owe so much to our health service, and when the health portfolio came up, I couldn't pass it by personally because of what we, as a family, owe to our NHS," he said.

Image copyright Michael Cooper
Image caption Arlene Foster, Robin Swann and Michelle O'Neill pictured alongside health workers on Tuesday

On Tuesday, the unions expressed concern that the money is coming from Stormont's finances and not additional funding from Westminster.

They are expected to respond to the pay offer on Thursday.

Nurses and healthcare workers began industrial action over staffing levels and pay, which does not rise in line with healthcare workers in Scotland, England and Wales.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Unions have not indicated that the strike action will be called off

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said he recognised the updated pay offer was coming from within existing Stormont finances, but said it was not a case of "robbing peter to pay Paul".

He said as the executive had not yet been able to tie down funding commitments from the British government, they had "dipped into existing finances".

He added that the proposed financial support was "way short" of what was expected.

BBC News NI political correspondent Enda McClafferty said he understood that the financial package was £2bn.

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