The Taoiseach has called on hospital consultants and nurses to cancel Christmas leave to stave off pending chaos in hospital emergency departments.
Leo Varadkar suggested drastic measures were needed as the HSE’s winter plan “does not work”.
His intervention comes as the health service faces severe disruption, with up to 500 ambulance personnel withdrawing from overtime from today, and nurses preparing to vote for all-out strike action.
Mr Varadkar said winter plans had been drawn up for over a decade and had failed every time. He said over the festive period, hospitals had been effectively closing seven out of 12 days.
He said: “We need to make sure, for the first time ever, that during that period the radiology departments and labs are open and working at full whack, that consultants are not on holidays in the first week of the year, particularly those who work in the emergency departments and that nurses are not on leave in the first two weeks of January.
We need to make sure that every bed is open. That is the kind of winter plan we need; not the kind we have had for years and years that does not work.
Mr Varadkar’s spokesperson subsequently declined to say if staff would be directed to work over Christmas.
Meanwhile, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has not ruled out taking strike action over the festive season if its 40,000 members vote in favour of doing so.
The INMO has announced its intention to ballot nurses and midwives for all-out strike in the wake of pay proposals that fell far short of their demand for across-the-board pay increases, which they say are essential to recruit and retain staff.
Initial action would be in the form of a 24-hour work stoppage, with only essential care provided, with two 24-hour stoppages the following week. INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said the action was about safety.
“The HSE simply cannot hire enough nurses and midwives on these wages,” she said. “Patients are suffering the consequences as our wards and services go understaffed.”
Ms Ní Sheaghdha called on the Government to engage with the union in the next two weeks and “make serious proposals” to avoid industrial action.
Meanwhile, the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) is due to convene a special National Executive Committee meeting on November 15 with a view to seeking a mandate for industrial action, up to and including strike, after its nursing members also rejected pay proposals.
The PNA is also in dispute with the HSE over its refusal to engage with the branch of its union, the National Ambulance Service Representative Association which represents ambulance personnel.
The union said the HSE is refusing to make payroll deductions of union subscriptions for Psychiatric Nurses Association ambulance personnel members.
As a result of the row, about 500 paramedics and emergency medical technicians (about 30% of ambulance personnel nationally) are withdrawing indefinitely from working overtime, from today.
Sinead McGrath, national chairperson of the Psychiatric Nurses Association said the HSE “in refusing to allow ambulance personnel to be represented by the association, should be aware that it is jeopardising the operation of the ambulance service which relies heavily on our members to undertake additional shifts”.
A HSE spokesperson said the National Ambulance Service is working towards ensuring continuity of service: “While the HSE does not anticipate any interruption in service delivery [today], we are continuing to monitor the situation very closely.”
In the Dáil, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said that about 100,000 patients will have waited on trolleys by the end of the year.