Health workers at South West Acute Hospital joined colleagues across Northern Ireland by going on strike this week.

The industrial action is being taken by members of the Royal College of Nursing and Unison members. In total 25,000 nurses, ambulance staff, support staff and social care workers, will strike and it comes amid a dispute over pay parity and safe staffing levels.

Union chiefs state that a difference developed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, where pay rises for nurses and healthcare workers in Northern Ireland did not increase in line with those in Scotland, England and Wales.

The Impartial Reporter spoke to members on the picket line this week about their frustration and also the difficulty in choosing to go on strike.

“It is always a difficult decision to take strike action because we work in a health service and we are here to help the people of our country,” Fred Nawn, Shop Steward in the Pharmacy Department at the South West Acute Hospital said.

“We are here to provide a health service but we cannot engage meaningfully with the management to negotiate a decent pay award for all staff. So unfortunately it has come to this but we are so delighted with all the support we are receiving from the community. People who have been coming past have been waving at us and cheering us on, it has been such a delight,” Mr Nawn explained, and he believes that the issue could be resolved.

“It can, all we want is a fair pay award which we can take on and maybe even negotiate for two or three pay awards which has been done in other locations such as England and Wales only last year. The unions are always prepared to negotiate with the Department of Health but we want a realistic and liveable pay.”

Mr Nawn added that of course there was frustration with the current political impasse and the fact that there is no Health Minister at Stormont.

“That is a frustration but that is a political question that all voters will have to make a decision.”

Pay disputes go back to 2010 but were escalated in 2017 the Westminster government agreed a pay deal that guaranteed an increase over three years for NHS workers. This was not brought in in Northern Ireland however due to a lack of a functioning Assembly.

Since the Assembly collapsed in 2017, talks have been ongoing between the health unions and the Department of Health but little progress has been made and it was this lack of progress that led to industrial action being taken.

The first phase of industrial action runs from November 25 to December 18, with a second phase running until March 2020.

Department of Health Permanent Secretary Mr Pengelly has said that industrial action could make the situation in the health service in Northern Ireland worse:

“The latest disturbing waiting time statistics have just been released, hospital Emergency Departments remain under severe pressure and winter-related illnesses are impacting on the population,” he said:

“I fully understand the deep-seated anger and frustration of staff dealing with these escalating problems day and daily. Indeed, I share those feelings. My appeal to unions is simply this – please don’t allow a bad situation to become worse. The ultimate resolution to this dispute rests with Ministers,” Mr Pengelly concluded.

In relation to local services at the South West Acute Hospital and surrounding area, a spokesperson for the Western Health and Social Care Trust said yesterday (Wednesday): “There will be strike action by Unison Trades Union members today (Wednesday 4 December), this will affect support services delivered at Altnagelvin Hospital, Gransha, South West Acute Hospital, Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex, Drumclay Home, Enniskillen, as well as, day centres and residential homes in the Tyrone and Fermanagh area.

“Support Services staff potentially taking strike action on Wednesday 4 December are: laundry workers, porters, security staff, domestics, catering staff, mortuary assistants, housekeeping, car park staff and smoking cessation staff.

“The majority of services will be affected tomorrow. The Western Trust will prioritise patient meals and areas of risk and greater need. We are planning to provide a limited food service to staff and visitors, however in the event that this is not possible, some coffee shops and restaurants across our facilities may be closed. Staff and visitors may wish to make alternative arrangements.”