Junior doctors expected to strike as Donnelly admits conditions are ‘unacceptable’

Minister for Health says he is committed to ‘fundamental change and reform’ to restore ‘dignity and respect’

Junior doctors are expected to vote “overwhelmingly” for industrial action as Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly admitted the conditions in which they are working are “unacceptable” and fall short of basic levels of “dignity and respect”.

Junior doctors, also known as non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHDs), are currently balloting on taking industrial action, up to and including strike action, as part of their campaign to address unsafe working hours and contract reform.

Dr John Cannon, chair of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO)’s NCHD committee, has said junior doctors are not being paid for all hours’ work, and find themselves unable to take full annual leave or study leave entitlements.

Speaking on the fringes of the IMO’s annual general meeting at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday, Mr Donnelly said he was committed to opening talks with unions to improve conditions, and that “root and branch reform” is needed.

“What I want is a root and branch reform of the NCHD training programme where they have much more certainty, where they get the training they need, where they get the leave they need, where there is flexibility there, and they are treated with respect,” he said.

“There has to be changes to the working hours. Some NCHDs are working 36 hours shifts without a break and then being asked to make clinical decisions when they are exhausted. It is not acceptable.”

Mr Donnelly said the State has a serious shortage of consultants, but that it was “quite egregious” this shortfall is being “shored up” by junior doctors. “It is not fair on those doctors at all,” he said.

Mr Donnelly said he would engage in talks with doctors and the IMO, and that he does not believe industrial action is necessary.

“I think it’s a pity there has been a ballot now just as we are kicking off a very extensive programme of work, but we need to get on with that and engage with the doctors,” he said.

“I have made it unambiguously clear today that the current situation is not acceptable, and I am not saying this in response to industrial action. This has nothing to do with that. This is about treating people with dignity and respect.”

Earlier, during his speech to doctors in attendance, he said he was “committed to fundamental change and reform”.

“Non-consultant hospital doctors should get paid for all hours worked. They should not have to work unsafe hours. They should have access to training and be able to take annual and study leave. They should have access to adequate facilities at work.

“I have written to the HSE asking that they engage with you, and I have been assured that by them that they will work collaboratively with the IMO to address these issues.”

Following Mr Donnelly’s comments, outgoing IMO president Dr Ina Kelly said that while his words were welcome, the ballot for industrial action would continue.

“The minister himself has acknowledged the horrendous working conditions they are operating in,” she said. “These are problems that are going to have be fixed.

“There is a lot of work to be done, a lot of negotiations to be done, and a lot of money to be put behind what’s been said. NCHDs are not being paid for every hour they work, and they are working in excess of legal hours.

“The NCHDs need to see action, so we will need to go into negotiations, but the dispute continues. We expect, from what we’re hearing, it will be an overwhelming vote for industrial action next Wednesday.”

Earlier, the IMO unanimously passed an emergency resolution in support of junior doctors.