Despite their union being ''cautiously optimistic'' about a new deal, midwives employed by the Northland District Health Board set up a picket line at Mander Park in Whangārei yesterday.

A proposal put to negotiators last week addressed the key issues in the dispute, a union official said — but it had not turned into a formal offer before planned nationwide strike action.

The DHB-employed Midwifery Employee Representation and Advisory Service (Meras) members' week-long rolling action will be a ''symbolic hikoi'', starting at the country's north and south ends and each day moving closer to Parliament.

Co-leader Jill Ovens said the union will recommend that members ratify the latest proposal if it does become a formal offer.

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Northland DHB employs 60 midwives throughout the region, 90 per cent of whom are Meras members.

There were staffing contingency plans in place to manage any disruption caused by yesterday's strike, which lasted from 9am to 9pm.

''To date patients have been very supportive of staff. We have been very careful to explain what is happening and clear that they will receive great midwifery care if needed, despite the strike,'' said Deb Pittam, NDHB midwifery and maternity services manager.

In December, health boards criticised Meras for turning down a 9 per cent pay rise over the next 18 months plus two pay step increases and a lump-sum payment.

Midwives had been offered the same pay deal negotiated by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) for nurses.

Meras proposed lifting the starting salary for midwives from $49,450 to $56,788, equivalent to the second step of the nurses' pay scale.

Midwives have different skills and qualifications to most nurses, Meras said. They have a high level of responsibility, study for a four-year equivalent direct-entry degree, and their practice includes high-level, clinical decision-making.