Nurses in England, Scotland and Wales received the 1% pay increase for 2017-2018 from April 2017. Although the Northern Ireland Department of Health finally announced in December 2017 the implementation of this award, it was only paid at the end of February. For most of 2017-2018, Northern Ireland was therefore isolated as the only UK country in which no pay award had been received for the current financial year.
This follows several years of pay restraint for nurses, including two years of a pay freeze and the 2014-2015 non-consolidated award, which meant that many nurses in Northern Ireland yet again received no cost of living pay increase.
Nurses in Northern Ireland are now at least 14% worse off in real terms than in 2010. They are seeing their standard of living fall, with no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. According to the most recent RCN Employment Survey, 40% of nurses in Northern Ireland say that they struggle to pay gas and electricity bills (compared with 34% in Wales, 29% in England and 27% in Scotland). 24% of Northern Ireland nurses struggle with childcare costs (compared with 12% in England and Wales and 11% in Scotland. Around one in five nurses has been forced to take a second job just to make ends meet. We are also hearing reports of nurses in Northern Ireland, and across the UK, accessing food banks. The delay in implementing an award for 2017-2018 has intensified the hardship felt by hard-working nursing staff and adding to the perception that the care they provide to the people of Northern Ireland is not valued.
It is also clear that the 14%+ real terms fall in nurses’ pay is having a negative impact upon recruitment and retention and, therefore, on staffing levels and patient care. The Northern Ireland Department of Health confirmed that there were around 1,800 nursing vacancies in the HSC in Northern Ireland as at 30 June 2017. The current figure is likely to be higher. The RCN estimates that there could be an equivalent number of vacancies in the independent (nursing home) sector. A recent RCN member survey in Northern Ireland confirmed that the two most significant priorities for nurses here are  safe staffing and  pay. Nurses believe that the cap on nursing pay is putting patient care at risk. It devalues nurses and nursing, means people are not joining the profession and many people are leaving. And because there are not enough nurses, patients often cannot get the care they need.
The RCN and other trade unions have now agreed a new pay deal for NHS staff in England. In Scotland and Wales, similar pay deals are currently the subject of consultation.
In Northern Ireland, however, we currently have no Assembly, no Executive and no public sector pay policy for 2018-2019. The Department of Health has stated that, under these circumstances, it is unable to commit to any undertaking in relation to pay. The RCN, along with other trade unions, is now working with the Department of Health to scope what a similar pay deal might look like in Northern Ireland. In the continuing absence of accountable political leadership, the prospect of any such deal being implemented remains remote.