Causeway Chronicle

Health Minister writes to the BMA Junior Doctors Committee 

Health Minister Robin Swann has written to the BMA Junior Doctors Committee in relation to planned industrial action next month.

The full text of the letter is: I wish to underline my commitment to further detailed engagement between my Department and the BMA Junior Doctors Committee on pay, contract reform and other issues of importance.

While room for manoeuvre on pay may be limited at this present time, I still believe dialogue offers the best way forward. Please be assured, therefore, that my Department’s door remains open for discussions.

As someone with a track record of valuing and supporting health service staff, I must question the merit of the industrial action planned for next month. I know it will impact heavily on patients. As the Executive is starting the important work of stabilising public services, I would ask that all parts of our workforce give us time and space to tackle some exceptionally challenging and intractable problems which have worsened as a result of Covid and the lack of Government.

I fully understand and sympathise with the frustration of junior doctors over both pay and the relentless pressure on services. My plea is that this frustration should not spill into industrial action that cannot achieve anything of substance.

Negotiation is about the art of the possible. While I fully understand the anger of junior doctors who have seen pay not keep pace with inflation in recent years, it is not realistic to expect this issue to be resolved by the Executive and Assembly at this point in time.

Pay erosion has been a consequence of UK Government fiscal policies over the past decade and has been experienced across the UK public sector. This is a national issue.  I am committed to doing all I can to match awards given in England – but parity plus for pay awards is not deliverable.

In terms of the medical and dental workforce, I am moving to implement the DDRB recommendations for 2023/24.  For junior doctors, this will deliver a significant average pay increase of 9.1% in 23/24 with those in their first year receiving a 10.7% uplift.  This award will be back dated and payable to all staff from April 2023.  This pay uplift will compare very favourably to other parts of the public sector and will bring junior doctor basic pay above the level in Wales, and closer to the level in England.  As you know, there are different contractual arrangements in place for junior doctors in England, which makes precise like for like comparisons difficult.  Locally our current contracts offer a lower basic salary with higher variable supplements for working out of hours or at weekends.  In contrast, the English contract introduced a higher basic pay and lower variable rates. Under the current contract, junior doctors in NI receive allowances ranging from an additional 20-100% of basic pay depending on their rota.

I should further stress that the DDRB recommended package does not mean a conclusion to engagement on junior doctors’ pay and conditions. My Department has committed to further negotiations when we have greater clarity on any final settlement in the ongoing junior doctors dispute in England.  This may also be an appropriate time to address the wider issue of reforming the current contract in NI.

I do not believe it would be appropriate or fair to withhold the 2023/24 DDRB recommended package for doctors and dentists at a time when other public sector workers will be receiving their own pay awards. It has already been delayed for far too long in NI due to political and budgetary factors.  As a result, I intend to put this money in the pockets of our doctors and dentists as soon as possible.

In conclusion, I would emphasise that neither my Department nor the Executive have chosen to be in this current budgetary situation. We nevertheless have to live within the funding realities and that means having to share out very limited resources as best we can, knowing that we will not be able to meet every demand.

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