One of the largest public sector strikes Northern Ireland has ever seen takes place later this week with health and infrastructure to be severely impacted.
The five health trusts, in a joint statement released today (Monday), say they are “deeply concerned” that the industrial action on Thursday, January 18 will have “a profound impact on our services, which are already under enormous strain”.
They say the disruption will be on a “massive and unprecedented scale” and services will be akin to those available on Christmas Day – “at best”.
The statement read: “It is a tragedy that our colleagues, who are the backbone of our Health and Social Care service, feel they have no alternative but to take this action.
“We would repeat our call for all staff to be properly rewarded for their work.
“They understandably feel aggrieved that their counterparts in the rest of the UK have received a pay award, while they continue to work incredibly hard without receiving the same recognition, particularly during a period of high cost of living increases. To add to their immense frustration, they have been told publicly that funding for a pay award is potentially available, but not yet released.
“As Chief Executives, we have repeatedly and publicly called for a long-term funding settlement for health and social care in Northern Ireland that addresses central issues including waiting lists, recruitment and pay in a sustainable manner.
“We have been struggling with a system where funding has been allocated on a yearly basis, which makes it impossible to plan for the long term.
“There is so much to put right in health and social care. Much-needed progress has been critically hampered by multiple years of political and budgetary instability.
“As the extreme pressures on the Health and Social Care service continue unabated, the position is increasingly unsustainable. We would like to sincerely thank all our staff for their continued dedication, in really difficult circumstances.”
The Department for Infrastructure will also be hard hit, in particular, the winter gritting service which will be affected on a day when temperatures will dip well below freezing (-3 C across Armagh) leaving roads – many, normally treated – in treacherous condition. Incident response will also be affected.
As well as that, MOT and driving tests will be among the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) services facing significant disruption.
A DfI spokesperson said: “With cold weather being forecast for this week, the industrial action will cause disruption to our winter gritting service. If the current weather warnings remain in place, we would advise people to avoid travel, if possible, on Thursday.
“Where people need to travel, drivers and other road users will need to take particular care on Thursday and Friday given the potential for icy conditions and ongoing disruption to gritting.
“Where possible, contingency plans are being put in place, but it is expected that there will be widespread disruption on Thursday, which will affect the following services:
– Winter service – gritting of the road network;
– Repair of serious infrastructure defects such as manhole collapse or potholes;
– Prioritisation of assistance to those incidents with most impact to life and property;
– Response and clear-up operation when there are incidents on the road such as oil spills or unexpected debris;
– Drainage infrastructure clearing and cleansing;
– MOT services and driving tests;
– Strangford Ferry services;
– Significantly reduce our capacity to respond to flood emergencies;
– Significant delays in responding to calls to the flood incident line.”
The spokesperson added: “The work done by the Department’s staff is a constant, vital but often unseen aspect of the day-to-day functioning of society and its value becomes very visible when it is not available, particularly on the road network. Without people to deliver these essential services, there is limited mitigation possible to preserve the normal protection to road users.
“We will not know the precise number of staff available until the days of strike action which means it could be Thursday morning before the full impact will be known and understood. The Department will, however, only be able to deliver a fraction of its normal gritting service.
“The Department also appreciates the additional impact that other aspects of industrial disputes will have on January 18. Our colleagues in the Department of Health have advised people to take sensible steps to reduce their chances of requiring their services on the day.
“Similarly, we would ask that, where possible, people think carefully about whether they need to travel – particularly if temperatures drop below freezing as currently forecast.
“We will be keeping our advice to the public under review as the week progresses and the weather forecast becomes more certain.
“Immediately following the day of action, members of the GMB and Unite unions will continue with a week of industrial action until January 26. Again, this will impact on gritting services.
“Winter service, response to road and flood emergencies, clean-up repairs to infrastructure and delays in responding to calls to the flood line are therefore expected to be further disrupted from 19-25 of January.”
The spokesperson added: “Given wider pressures on public finances, it has not been possible to make a pay offer to staff and the Department acknowledges the deep frustration of staff at this situation. We look forward to the resolution of this situation and apologise for any inconvenience to the public in the meantime.”