The country’s hospitals will be plunged into chaos by six 24-hour strikes by nurses unless the Government can adequately address their demands for pay increases of up to 12%.
The first 24-hour strike will take place on January 30. If the dispute is not resolved, further strikes will take place on February 5 and 7, and then on February 12, 13, and 14. Nurses will only provide lifesaving care and emergency response teams on these dates.
“The HSE simply cannot recruit enough nurses and midwives on these wages. Until that changes, the health service will continue to go understaffed and patient care will be compromised,” said Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha.
“The ball is in the Government’s court. This strike can be averted. All it takes is for the Government to acknowledge our concerns, engage with us directly, and work to resolve this issue in a proactive manner.”
She said the union was due to meet with the Government last month but the meeting was cancelled.
“Like many patients in Ireland’s health service, we are still waiting for an appointment,” she said.
The HSE is expected to meet nursing representatives next week to try to find a resolution.
The strikes were announced on a day when 583 patients were on trolleys waiting for a hospital bed, according to the INMO’s Trolley Watch.
Cork University Hospital was the worst affected with 61 patients on trolleys. As flu rates rise, CUH said it had been “exceptionally busy” in recent days and advised people to avoid its emergency department.
Health Minister Simon Harris said bringing the health service to a virtual standstill is not “warranted” and could be avoided.
The HSE said it was disappointed at the INMO’s decision to take industrial action, especially at a time when the health services were coming under pressure. It said it would be seeking a meeting with the INMO “at an early stage”.
Ms Ní Sheaghdha said her union would be happy to meet for talks and wanted to do everything possible to avoid only the second strike by the INMO in its 100-year history.
She said nurses needed to be paid a better wage in order to keep them here. At the moment, the HSE is spending €1.5m a week on agency staff.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has pointed out that, over the past five years, an extra 3,330 nurses and midwives, or 10% of the total, were recruited.
“These are additional staff, over and above retirements and leavers, and shows that the public service is able to recruit and retain nurses and midwives,” said the department.
It also said nursing and midwifery salaries are competitive with a basic starting salary of €31,110. The HSE estimates that a typical nurse or midwife will earn an additional 20% in allowances and premium payments, bringing the starting salary to over €37,000. It said a breakdown of the pay spend showed that, on average, nurses and midwives earn around €57,602, including all allowances and premium payments.
Margaret Frahill, a nurse manager at Mercy University Hospital, Cork, said it was a “big decision” for her to take strike action.
“I have been nursing for 40 years and the decision did not come easy,” said Ms Frahill, a member of the INMO’s executive council and a former vice-president. “At the moment as a nurse manager I can neither recruit nor retain an Irish nurse in the service; we are just not paid enough for the job we do.”
Ms Frahill said her salary is €7,000 less than that of people she works with every day — physiotherapists and radiographers.
“It is for the future of nursing and our patients that we are taking action,” she said.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association, which has also voted overwhelmingly for industrial action, meets tomorrow to finalise its strike plans.