There is still work to do to ensure there are enough staff to cover all “critical departments” ahead of the first ever strike by NI’s nurses, a health trust boss has said.
Talks were ongoing with unions to resolve the issue, said the Northern Health Trust’s Dr Tony Stevens, adding that he was “confident”.
About 9,000 nurses are to strike for 12 hours on Wednesday from 08:00 GMT.
Paramedics are set to take 24-hour strike action.
Nurses and other healthcare workers have been taking industrial action for several weeks amid complaints of poor pay and staffing levels.
Dr Stevens told the BBC’s Nolan Show there would be a “shrinking” of emergency departments “to make sure we can care for the sickest and the most critical”.
“The ambulance service and the trade unions are working very closely together and they do have arrangements in place to cover the most serious – the category one and category two – incidents.
“We have not yet assured ourselves that we will have all the staff we need in all the critical departments, particularly in emergency departments, but we are getting there and we are continuing to work with the trade unions.”
He said he had told one trade union representative he wanted them to work together to make it a “safe strike”.
Analysis: These are exceptional times
By Marie-Louise Connolly, BBC News NI Health Correspondent
There are just under 2,800 unfilled nursing posts within the health service in Northern Ireland.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) estimates that a similar level of unfilled posts exists within nursing homes.
The nursing vacancy rate in NI is within 13%, compared with about 11% in England and about 6% in Scotland.
This means that for every eight nurses who should be working in Northern Ireland, one is missing.
Nurses are demanding better work force planning.
Last year, the local health service spent £52m on agency nurses to fill these gaps in the workforce.
That money, the RCN argues, could be better managed to train and pay health service nurses.
These are exceptional times which require an exceptional intervention.
The RCN says no time is a good time to strike but years of negotiations between various health ministers failed and years of warnings were ignored.
Kevin McAdam from the Unite union said the trade unions were “working hard” to ensure there was necessary staff cover.
“All of the local reps (of the trade unions) have been given authority to ensure that where critical care is required it is delivered,” he added.
“Our reps have been standing up to that plate, working hard with management to ensure that patients do not suffer in this process.”
Anne Speed from Unison said joint meetings were taking place with employers on Tuesday and that it had provided an exemption from striking for staff working in “cancer treatment and children’s homes”.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said it was working with management to ensure there is enough staff cover in “critical departments”.
The heads of all of Northern Ireland’s health trusts have stated the current crisis in the service has been “years in the making”.
Industrial action by health workers began because of a dispute over pay and working conditions.
The latest information on strike action and how it might affect patients can be found on the Health and Social Care Board website.