The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), the country’s main nursing union, has demanded legislation that would require minimum staffing levels in hospitals and threatened to strike if the Government does not agree.
Amid an overcrowding crisis in hospital emergency departments, the union’s executive met in emergency session yesterday and decided to begin a process of consultation in advance of a possible campaign of industrial action.
The union said the move was “in pursuance of safe staffing levels that are underpinned with legislation and clinical facilitation in all hospitals to ensure a safe skills mix”.
A spokeswoman for the union said the Government already had a “safe staffing” policy that required minimum numbers of nurses in hospital departments, but those were routinely ignored. The INMO now wants the safe staffing policy enshrined in legislation with penalties for hospitals that fail to meet its requirements.
The union also wants additional on-the-job training for nurses, which it describes as “clinical facilitation”.
The INMO said that it has been in discussions with the Department of Health and the HSE in recent months, but without agreement, and it was now taking this step as a response to the crisis in emergency departments.
The union also announced a ballot for strike action over pay last summer, but later accepted a pay deal offered by the Government.
“We must now take whatever action is deemed necessary to ensure that we do not endure this level of danger in our workplaces in the coming months and years ahead on a continuous replay mode.”
Speaking to the The Irish Times on Friday evening, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, the union’s general secretary, said the process will be “what it says on the tin, a consultation” but that the fact nurses and midwives would be discussing the possibility of industrial action was a sign that “all of the negotiations and our attempts to address the situation have failed”.
“We have been asking the Government since July to address the intolerable conditions being experienced by our members and by patients and we have been asking for a multiyear plan since 2017, but we have still not received one and we know that if we are going to successfully address the huge challenges facing our healthcare system, you have to plan in advance.”
As it is, she said, “we have Government policy documents that set out targets for how many nurses and other healthcare professionals you need to safely run the system and they are not being met”.
The substantial growth in HSE staff numbers in recent years cited by ministers, she said, had only been due to a dramatic growth in HSE services and did not actually address the underlying and continuing problems being experienced by nurses due to staffing levels.
Responding to the potential for industrial action by the INMO, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said: “What we need to do is listen very carefully. There are a lot of very encouraging things happening in the profession of nursing and midwifery. The safe staffing levels are being rolled out around the country. Over the last three years there are about 4,500 more nurses and midwives in the HSE than there were. So we are recruiting at record levels. What I want to see is a doubling of college places for nursing and midwifery as well. We need to listen very carefully to the nurses and midwives and be responding to the things they are saying.”
He said the Department of Health would work with the HSE and hospitals to find ways of having permanent healthcare professionals in these roles. “The roles, broadly, are sanctioned. The challenge is recruiting permanently into those roles. That is the kind of thing the emergency department nurses need to be hearing,” he said.