Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/pa wire
Robin Swann became health minister on Saturday
The new health minister, Robin Swann, has said he has made contact with trade unions.Thousands of nurses and healthcare workers in Northern Ireland have been taking part in industrial action since November over pay parity and staffing.Mr Swann said he will meet health unions “as soon as possible this week”.”I’m looking forward to getting this dispute sorted right away. We need our nurses and other health workers back at work,” he said.”Obviously, the financial package for the new executive and support from other ministerial colleagues will be central to making that happen. “There’s a massive challenge for all of us in making our health service better and our great staff have a vital role to play in that.”The Ulster Unionist Party chose the health department when devolved government returned to Northern Ireland on Saturday.Speaking to BBC News NI, Mr Swann said the party considered health a major priority and “when we had the chance to take it, we did”.
Nurses on the picket line outside the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast on Friday
Health workers say they want to be paid the same as their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.Pay parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK ended in 2014 when the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Jim Wells was health minister.He imposed a “degree of restraint” on pay for health care workers, due to financial challenges in the department.The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) argues the real value of nurses’ pay here has fallen by 15% over the past eight years.Since the collapse of power-sharing in 2017, the department of health said it could not meet unions demands because of “budgetary constraints and limited authority in the absence of a minister”.Vacant postsThere are just under 2,800 unfilled nursing posts within the health service in Northern Ireland.The RCN estimates that a similar level of unfilled posts exists within nursing homes.The nursing vacancy rate in Northern Ireland is 13%, compared with about 11% in England and 6% in Scotland.This means that for every eight nurses who should be working in Northern Ireland, one is missing.