More than 200 doctors in Irish hospitals are still working shifts of more than 24 hours, contrary to the EU rules that were due to be phased in from 2000, the European Court of Justice heard.
In a case that has dragged on for five years, the European Commission finally took the Irish State to court over hospital doctors working shifts as long as 36 hours and more than 100 hours a week, and not getting minimum rest periods.
Lawyers from both sides provided legal arguments during the hearing that lasted less than 90 minutes at the court in Luxembourg, and were told that they can expect a first legal opinion in two weeks.
This will give a clear indication of whether the court’s lawyers believe the Government has broken the EU’s working time directive.
If found guilty Ireland could face substantial fines, including daily penalties until the situation is righted.
The commission claimed Ireland broke five articles in the directive requiring a minimum daily rest period every 24 hours:
- Minimum uninterrupted rest periods each seven-day period;
- Average working time for every seven-day period is no more than 48 hours;
- That if they do not get these minimum rest periods they get compensatory rest;
- That doctors in training do not exceed the weekly working time after the transition period ends.
The commission described the breach as serious and when it announced the case at the end of 2013 said: “It endangers not only doctors’ health and safety but also their patients as over-tired doctors risk making mistakes.”
The Department of Health and the HSE had promised that the overlong hours would end by December 2014, but according to the Irish Medical Organisation this has not happened.
They were not represented at the hearing yesterday but in December met the commission to update them on the situation.
Eric Young, with the IMO, said the organisation found that the State’s submission was “a work of fiction”.
While the situation has improved dramatically over the past few years, with 4,370 hospital doctors working no more than the maximum hours allowed with the proper rest periods, there are still 230 doctors whose rights are not being respected, he said.
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