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Secretary of State to convene health summit with party leaders

Secretary of State Julian Smith is expected to convene a health summit involving the main Stormont party leaders later on Thursday.

It comes after unprecedented strike action by health care staff calling for pay parity and safer staffing levels.

It is understood the summit forms part of the overall talks process to restore the Stormont institutions.

Northern Ireland has been without an executive since January 2017, when the governing parties split in a row.

With no devolution, political parties have called on Mr Smith to intervene on health – but he has insisted it remains a matter for them.

About 15,500 nurses in Northern Ireland staged a strike action on Wednesday in a dispute over pay and patient safety.

It follows weeks of industrial action by other healthcare workers over the same issues.

The total number of hospital appointments cancelled on Wednesday was 4,749.

‘Unlikely that summit will yield breakthrough’


By Jayne McCormack, BBC News NI political reporter

Ears might prick up at the news of a health summit being convened, but government sources say this meeting was always scheduled to take place today, as part of efforts to restore the assembly.

As the parties wrangle their way through negotiations to try and restore Stormont, they will focus solely on health this morning, which in recent days has dominated their discussions anyway.

Perhaps the secretary of state believes a formal “summit” on the issue will focus minds.

But the parties argue that given the strike action happening away from the hill, immediate action is required by the government, outside of the talks process.

It also seems unlikely that any breakthrough will emerge on the matter at the summit, given Julian Smith is sticking to his position that it remains a devolved matter.

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 then health minister, Jim Wells, imposed a “degree of restraint” on pay for health care workers, due to financial challenges in the department.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Wells said the decision had been “very difficult because the choice was very stark”, explaining that another increase in pay at the time could have led to redundancies or services being closed.

The issue has not been looked at again because Northern Ireland has not had a devolved government since 2017.

The political parties have been taking part in efforts to restore power sharing this week – but it is understood Thursday’s summit will focus solely on the health crisis.

Mr Smith is expected to tell the parties that the crisis in the NHS in Northern Ireland must be addressed as an “immediate priority”.

Industrial action also continues on Thursday, but not at the levels faced across Northern Ireland earlier in the week.

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BBC News – Health

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