Health workers in Northern Ireland will not get a pay increase this year unless further funding is secured, a senior civil servant has said.
Department of Health Permanent Secretary Peter May, who is running the region's under-pressure health service in the absence of devolved ministers, said replicating pay awards made to NHS staff in England could only be delivered by making "unprecedented" cuts. He said he did not have the authority to make cutbacks that, he said, would have "severe and lasting implications" for health and social care services.
Failure to roll out in Northern Ireland the 5% wage increase approved for NHS workers in England would result in Stormont breaking the principle of pay parity.
The announcement by Mr May comes as unions in Northern Ireland prepare for fresh talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris on their pay demands. Health workers in the region have been involved in industrial action in recent months amid ongoing disputes about wages and conditions.
Mr Heaton-Harris set the region's budget last month, a move required due to the lack of a power sharing executive at Stormont. The funding settlement was broadly in line with last year's budget, however, with inflation soaring in the last 12 months and Stormont facing a range of additional pressures, including a series of public sector pay demands, Northern Ireland is facing significant real-term cuts to public services.
Pay Increase Estimated to Cost £375 Million
The UK Government is facing calls to divert extra money to Stormont as part of any political deal that secures a return to devolved government. The Department of Health has estimated a funding gap of £732 million for the current financial year. Officials have implemented about £260 million of savings and efficiencies in a bid to narrow the gap, leaving a shortfall of approximately £470 million.
The department said implementing pay awards to health workers in Northern Ireland would cost £375 million.
Mr May has decided not to implement the awards in Northern Ireland, as well as make a further £100 million worth of cuts, in an attempt to make the department’s books balance for the year ahead. The £100 million in cuts includes a requirement for Northern Ireland's health trusts to find £55 million in additional savings. It will also see investment in initiatives to tackle the region's spiralling waiting lists cut by £34.6 million.
The cuts will also see reductions in the core grant scheme for community and voluntary groups, the end of the COVID-19 wastewater surveillance programme, and the end of COVID-related support funding for dental services.
Mr May outlined his decision in a letter to the main Stormont parties on Monday. The plans are also detailed in an equality impact assessment (EQIA) that has been published for public consultation. In the letter to party health spokesmen, Mr May said: "I wish to emphasise that, like all other departments, we are in an impossible position of being asked to fulfil conflicting responsibilities.
"This involves trying to balance our responsibilities to live within the budget we have been given, act in the public interest and safeguard services.
"Decisions are required that we do not wish to take and that are not in the best interests of the health and social care system."
Warning of the scale of cutbacks that would be required to implement the £375 million pay awards, Mr May said: "Given the legislative basis supported by guidance from the Secretary of State, I have concluded that taking such a decision would be outwith my authority as Permanent Secretary.
"This means that, as things currently stand, it will not be possible to offer a pay award," he said, adding, "I am very aware of the potential impact this could have on staff and on industrial relations."