Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann has announced that pay deductions for industrial action by health service workers in late 2019 and early 2020 will be reimbursed.
“I am pleased that my recommendation on this matter was agreed by the executive on Tuesday”
The decision was agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive on Tuesday. However, the Royal College of Nursing questioned why the long-promised move had taken so long to implement.
The college said the payments had already been promised on previous occasions but it was only now that they were being implemented.
Thousands of nurses across the region took part in industrial action, including strikes, between January and November over pay parity and staffing.
The action was suspended when the newly-reformed government put forward a fresh offer, after hours of negotiation between trade union representatives and the Department of Health.
Mr Swann proposed an increase to nurses’ pay to align with the wages of their counterparts in England in a move set to cost the government £109m in 2019-20.
He also vowed work to implement a previously published workforce strategy by 2026 to achieve safe staffing.
“Members have rightly been asking us for months why the Department was withholding the payment of this”
The government in Northern Ireland reformed on 11 January following three years of absence after its two leading political parties fell into dispute over an energy bill, causing the executive to dissolve.
In a statement this week, Mr Swann said: “This is a complex issue, involving legal considerations and the question of whether a precedent could be set for industrial action across many different workforces.
“These are, of course, unprecedented times with our health service workers facing unprecedented pressures,” he said. “I have worked hard to find a way through these complexities.
“I informed executive colleagues last week that a way forward was on its way and I am pleased that my recommendation on this matter was agreed by the executive on Tuesday.
“My first priority on becoming minister was to resolve the industrial action. That was swiftly achieved,” said Mr Swann.
He added: “I hope now we can all put that chapter behind us and keep working together on combatting Covid-19 and rebuilding our health service.”
But Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: “It is almost nine months since it was first announced that pay lost by nurses and other health care workers during three days of strike action would be reinstated.
“While I know that every nurse and nursing assistant affected by this will be relieved that the Department of Health has finally released this money, the fact is that it was given to them by the Department of Finance in May.
“Members have rightly been asking us for months why the Department was withholding the payment of this,” said Ms Cullen.
“We all know that this has been a difficult year for the health service and that staff are working harder than ever to ensure that patients get the best possible service under the most challenging of circumstances.”
She added: “It would mean a lot to nursing staff if they didn’t have to fight so hard in the future to ensure that what has been promised is delivered.”
“We will be pressing to ensure that this pay is returned as part of the December pay packet”
Anne Speed, Unison head of bargaining and representation, said: “Health minister Swann’s action to return pay to health staff for hours lost due to industrial action is welcome.
“Our members have been brave and determined in efforts to support the people during this Covid pandemic,” she said. “The thanks they have received from the public has been a morale boost.
“The return of lost pay will further boost their morale at a time when our health service is under pressure like never before,” said Ms Speed.
She added: “We will be pressing to ensure that this pay is returned as part of the December pay packet.”