Doctors in Northern Ireland to be balloted on industrial action

by Ben Ireland

Consultants and junior doctors to vote after devolved government denies pay uplift

Location: Northern Ireland
Published: Wednesday 4 October 2023
David Farren

Consultants and junior doctors in Northern Ireland will be balloted on industrial action, the BMA has confirmed.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland, which has essentially been left to run the health service since the collapse of devolution in February 2022, said there would be no pay awards at all this year as a result of funding shortfalls.

This is despite the Doctors and Dentists Review Body recommending a 6 per cent uplift, which has been offered to colleagues in England. 

As a result, both groups of doctors will be balloted over whether to take industrial action. A date for the ballot has not yet been set.  

An indicative ballot of consultants in Northern Ireland found 77 per cent were willing to take industrial action.


Recruitment struggle

David Farren (pictured above), Northern Ireland consultants committee chair, said: ‘Workforce is central to our health service, but doctors no longer feel valued. Pay has fallen behind other nations and behind the Republic of Ireland. We cannot recruit or retain doctors anymore.

‘Goodwill is currently keeping the system running and is increasingly in short supply when Northern Ireland is not even paying the uplift that colleagues in the rest of the UK are getting, despite their ongoing disputes. We have been told that any money that did become available would instead be used to address a budget deficit not of our making.

‘Despite the fact consultants now deal with more complex cases in a much more challenging environment, whilst a crisis builds in the health service, our pay no longer reflects the level of responsibility or clinical risk we undertake every day.’

The BMA Northern Ireland consultants committee wants an above inflation pay award for 2023/24, and ‘a clear pathway to restoring years of pay lost to austerity’.

Dr Farren added: ‘No doctor wants to take industrial action, we care about our patients and we know this announcement will be distressing for them, but doctors are telling me every day that they are looking to leave Northern Ireland or retire because of pay disparity.

‘No doubt the Department of Health will warn that any industrial action will make matters worse, but given that Northern Ireland’s waiting lists have been the longest of any in the UK for several years, we cannot ignore the harm to patients that in itself is causing.  

‘If we don’t fix pay we won’t be able to fix our health service as we will not be able to recruit or retain doctors.’


Prepared to strike

GRIFFIN: Decision 'clear-cut'

Nearly 900 junior doctors working in Northern Ireland outlined their widespread levels of frustration and anger with pay and workplace conditions in a recent survey by the Northern Ireland junior doctors committee.

More than 90 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to take industrial action to achieve better pay.

BMA Northern Ireland junior doctors committee chair Fiona Griffin said: ‘This is not a decision that has been taken lightly.

‘What we heard from our survey results, alongside the feedback we received from the hundreds of junior doctors who attended our workplace listening sessions earlier in the year, meant the decision to proceed towards a ballot was clear-cut for the committee.

‘There has been significant pay erosion for junior doctors over the past decade so now not only are we the only UK nation to not have received the DDRB-recommended pay uplift of 6%, but a junior doctor working here can also expect to be paid less than our colleagues working elsewhere in the UK and in other countries.’

Dr Griffin outlined how chronic rota gaps, consistently rising workload pressures and the subsequent effect on training opportunities needed for career progression has caused unprecedented levels of burnout and low morale among junior doctors working in the Northern Ireland health service.

‘The combination of these issues, and the fact our contract no longer reflects the current reality of training in Northern Ireland, means many junior doctors are opting out of training, leaving the profession, or choosing to practice outside of Northern Ireland where pay, conditions and life/work balance is much more attractive.

‘The lack of a functioning government and executive, with no health minister in place, is extremely frustrating but we have to do something. Our members made it clear to us that doing nothing was not an option.’


Action continues

Junior doctors and consultants in England have resumed industrial action this week as they seek progress towards full pay restoration. Consultants in England were offered a 6 per cent pay uplift, while junior doctors in England were offered 6 per cent plus a lump-sum of £1,250.

In Wales, preparations are being made for junior doctors, consultants and staff, associate and specialty doctors to ballot for industrial action after the devolved government offered a pay uplift of 5 per cent.

It is only in Scotland where there has been any progress. Junior doctors in Scotland accepted a 17.5 per cent pay uplift over two years, which included a ‘key’ commitment from the Scottish government to work towards full pay restoration in the future.

BMA Scotland, however, continues to warn that the devolved government must take ‘real action’ to stem low consultant morale after consultants in Scotland were handed the same 6 per cent offer as colleagues in England, and have not ruled out balloting for industrial action.