Radiographers in Northern Ireland will join a 12 hour strike action today, in protest over working conditions.
Members of the Society of Radiographers will be going on strike for 12 hours, from 8am to 8pm on Thursday, 18 January, demanding pay increases in line with those offered to colleagues in the rest of the UK.
The SoR announced the strike action in December, in the hopes of breaking the “political deadlock” gripping the region, and was followed by 11 other unions that also announced action, including Unison, GMB, the Royal College of Midwives, and Unite.
Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, has previously indicated that money is available to increase public-sector pay, and is using it as bait to try to entice politicians back to Stormont.
But Cora Regan, Northern Ireland national officer for the Society of Radiographers, said that any pay offer for public-service workers – including those in healthcare – must be removed from negotiations related to the return of the Northern Ireland assembly.
“The secretary of state for Northern Ireland has indicated that the public-service pay disputes should be resolved, and that there is money available,” she said.
“Healthcare workers should not be used as bargaining chips in a political game.”
Radiography professionals support nine out of 10 patients in Health and Social Care Northern Ireland. They work in diagnostic services, carrying out X-rays, MRI and CT scans, and in therapeutic services, planning and delivering radiotherapy to cancer patients.
But levels of pay that have fallen behind other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland mean that too few radiographers are being recruited – and many are leaving to work elsewhere.
In Scotland, radiographers are now paid 12 per cent more than in Northern Ireland.
Ms Regan said: “Even in England, where SoR members have taken strike action to demand better pay and conditions, a radiographer’s starting salary is more than £1,300 higher than it would be in Northern Ireland.
“The pressure to increase working hours, coupled with low pay, means that many radiography professionals are leaving Northern Ireland – or the profession itself – and they are not being replaced in adequate numbers.”
As a result, 188,850 people in Northern Ireland – nearly 10 per cent of the population – are now waiting for a diagnostic test. This wait means that treatment such as radiotherapy is delayed and cases become more complex – and, for some patients, even a two-week delay can mean the difference between life and death.
SoR members in Northern Ireland previously went on strike for 48 hours in September.
Ms Regan said: “Going out on strike is a difficult decision, especially during the winter months. But if we want to avoid facing a worsening crisis in HSC hospitals every winter, then we need to do something now to improve the recruitment and retention of radiographers.
“We need to offer our radiography professionals considerably better pay and conditions if we want to be able to keep them in our hospitals – and avoid patient waiting lists growing even longer than they are already.”
Jarlath Branagan, a CT radiographer who qualified in 2016, says that staff shortages mean that he is no longer able to give his patients the personal attention he feels they deserve.
“My mummy always said to me: ‘Always treat everyone as if they were your nana,’” he said.
“But we have only three radiographers in our hospital who are CT trained. We get 15-minute slots with patients for a full CT scan. In that time, we need to cannulate them, whether they have good veins or bad veins, get them on the table and then ask them to wait outside to make sure they don’t have an adverse reaction.
“There’s so much you need to do in that 15 minutes. You don’t have time to think. You’re not getting time to look at their previous scans.
“I still try to treat everyone as though they were my nana, but you’re under so much pressure to see patients when they need to be seen. Whenever you call someone from the waiting room, you can see everyone else thinking, ‘It should be me.’
“I love my job, but with staffing levels at the minute, nobody sees any light at the end of the tunnel. Hours and pressure are increasing, but there’s no more money.”
The Society of Radiographers says that the HSC could reduce waiting lists, save lives and save taxpayers’ money by offering a fair starting salary for radiography professionals, as well as a move to restore pay levels for current staff over several years, from the 2023-24 pay award onwards.
It is also calling for investment in undergraduate and postgraduate training, as well as “earn as you learn” apprenticeship schemes.
Ms Regan said: “Radiographers are key to the transformation of health services in Northern Ireland. We believe that these measures will dramatically cut waiting lists, thus improving patients’ care, boosting the wellbeing of radiographers and saving the HSC millions in agency and outsourcing costs.
“Our members deserve better. Our patients deserve better.”