Nurses have praised “real progress” after Northern Ireland’s new health minister pledged to restore pay parity with England this year and next.

An extra £30 million is to come from existing Stormont finances.

Thousands of healthcare workers walked out this month and last amid mounting anger over pay levels and staff numbers.

Minister Robin Swann said: “The breakthrough we all wanted has been achieved. This is a good day after some very difficult days.”

Part of the cost for the current year is to be financed by drawing forward proposed allocations for future years. No extra money has yet been offered to Northern Ireland by the UK Government.

Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said: “We are pleased that the minister has listened carefully and responded quickly to our concerns, and that the situation in relation to pay parity has now been resolved.

“We are also satisfied that real progress has been made in relation to safe staffing and recruitment and retention of nursing staff.

“The minister has committed to a costed implementation plan for safe staffing within an agreed short period.

“There is a long way to go and we will work closely with the minister and Department of Health to find a sustainable way forward.”

Pat Cullen
Pat Cullen, left, joined the picket lines with nurses (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Swann said additional funding had been secured, and pay parity with England “can be restored”.

“Our nurses and other great health and social care workers can come off the picket line, can get back to the job that they love and do so well.”

Stormont Executive ministers are expecting billions of pounds from the Treasury to finance the ambitious plans outlined in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, an accord tabled jointly by the UK and Irish governments.

Much of it will be used to address multiple problems that have beset public services during the three-year powersharing impasse.

Top of the list is the high-profile pay dispute involving health care workers, and action to reduce spiralling hospital waiting lists.

Mr Swann said: “Decisive action has also been taken on the vital issue of staffing and my department is providing a written commitment to immediate high-level engagement with unions to produce a costed implementation plan on safe staffing within an agreed short period.”

He said he was grateful to colleagues around the Executive table for helping to make it happen.

Ministers met on Tuesday morning.

Conor Murphy, right, with First Minister Arlene Foster, Health Minister Robin Swann and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill
Conor Murphy, right, with First Minister Arlene Foster, Health Minister Robin Swann and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

Finance minister Conor Murphy said: “If we get the necessary finances to run decent public services then we will not be into the previous pattern of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“If we are going to have a sustainable Executive we need it politically sustainable but we also need it financially sustainable, and that is the argument that we are bringing to the British Government and to the Treasury.”

The Health Department has found an additional £79 million for this year but an extra £30 million is required, financed from funding allocations for future years.

Mr Swann said: “While I am glad that it is not impacting on the funds available for other services this year, it is important to note that it has not been financed by an additional allocation to Northern Ireland.”