The health minister has admitted that nurses have a legitimate pay claim against a backdrop of ongoing recruitment and retention difficulties within the workforce.

Addressing delegates at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) annual delegate conference in Cork, Simon Harris said: “Trust me, I hear you on this. I want to work with you. That is why we successfully got agreement that this would be specifically considered by the Pay Service Pay Commission and it is why your organisation was invited to contribute to a specific module — their first — on nurses and midwives and other healthcare staff.”

Mr Harris said the commission’s report is due next month and “we must and we will act on this”.

However, he admitted that no costings had been done and that this would not be addressed until after the Pay Service Pay Commission makes it’s report.

“But it is clear that the Public Service Pay Agreement does acknowledge that where specific retention and recruitment challenges exist in a sector, they can be addressed through a process,” said Mr Harris.

He said it would be a matter for the Government to decide how best to address it in the context of the estimates process.

Earlier in the week, nurses warned they would ballot for industrial action, including possible strikes, if they are unhappy with the outcome of pay talks.

This was in the context of delegates unanimously backing an emergency motion calling on the INMO executive to recommend rejection of any proposals that fail to progress their pay claims.

INMO president Martina Harkin-Kelly told delegates that Ireland is the “least competitive country from a purchasing power parity perspective based on nurse earnings across the US, Canada, Australia, and UK”.

She said the “elephant in the room” is Brexit.

“Make no mistake, hard or soft border, the UK will intensively recruit Irish nurses — we are their closest and most accessible English-speaking neighbour, who have a readymade pool of nurses and midwives.”

Ms Harkin-Kelly said nurses and midwives in Ireland are currently paid between 15% and 20% less than all other allied health professionals in the public health service “who have identical entry qualifications and have a shorter working week — in my humble opinion, this is a national disgrace”.

The minister also addressed the issue of the CervicalCheck scandal where upwards of 208 women with cervical cancer were not informed that a review of their screening history found previous smear tests had shown cancer warning signs that were not detected. The women were not informed either of the reviews or of the outcomes.

Seventeen of the women have died and the Government is planning a statutory inquiry into the scandal.

Mr Harris told the INMO that it had been “a bad week for the health service and a particularly poignant and worrying one for women”.

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