Unions criticised HSE decision to widen recruitment embargo to most staff categories

‘Neither affordable or sustainable’ to exceed target, warns HSE chief executive Bernard Gloster

Health Service Executive (HSE) unions say the organisation’s decision to widen a recruitment embargo will worsen conditions for patients and drive staff to work abroad.

An existing recruitment embargo is being expanded to include most job categories after the HSE exceeded its overall job growth targets for this year, chief executive Bernard Gloster told managers on Friday.

The existing recruitment embargo is being extended to all categories of staff, with the exception of consultants, doctors in training and this year’s cohort of graduate nurses and midwives, he said.

A recruitment embargo was first applied to senior management grades in May and was later extended to all administrative and management grades and, subsequently, all job categories as recruitment this year had exceeded targets.

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Health service unions said they were not consulted on the change, in breach of normal requirements. The effect of the widened recruitment embargo will be to encourage healthcare staff to seek employment abroad, according to the national joint council of unions in the health service.

The group of unions requested an urgent meeting with the HSE on Friday but said the request was declined. The unions now plans to consult their executive councils on the matter.

Although the embargo applies to this year, the HSE’s financial situation is likely to remain straitened into next year.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and the HSE failed to get more than €2 billion in extra funding they were seeking in Budget 2024. Instead, the budget provided an additional €800 million for health next year, including just €100 million for new developments.

With latest figures showing this year’s overall recruitment target of 6,100 additional staff has been surpassed, the scope of the embargo has been altered. Among the job categories likely to be affected by the change are nursing and midwifery, dentistry, health and social care professionals and ambulance staff.

“We have arrived at the point where we need to address the fact that we are on course to exceed our 2023 funded workforce target, and this is neither affordable or sustainable,” Mr Gloster said in a memo sent to senior management on Friday.

As a result, he has instructed managers not to make any further offers or enter into any further obligations in respect of posts, except for the exempted categories mentioned above. “Any offers made and not formally accepted, or where a contract has not issued should now be withdrawn,” he said.

A ban on increasing the number of agency workers remains in place.

The only other exemption relates to specified frontline and residential posts in disability, about which the national director of community operations will advise.

“I know this will create difficulties for many of you and the emergency management team will support service managers in the application of this circular in particular situations,” Mr Gloster said. “However, in 2024 we will be consolidating our now unprecedented and expanded workforce and range of services they provide.

“I know that any slow down or pause in recruitment can be dispiriting for those around the HSE who are working to develop ever better services, interventions and care pathways. I would like to emphasise that there is no reduction in ambition here for the future.”

Next year, he said, an additional 2,268 whole-time staff have been allocated, so there are “many possibilities to be explored for the years ahead”.

“This move is necessary only because we know now that by year end we will have reached our 2023 ambitions for recruitment.”

Kevin Figgis, sector organiser of Siptu’s health division, said the decision would “cripple” departments as they prepared for the busy winter period. The embargo would lead to a worsening of conditions for patients and doctors as winter approaches, the Irish Medical Organisation said.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation on Friday held an emergency meeting regarding potential industrial action by the union’s members to “protect nursing and midwifery practice and patient safety”.

General secretary Phil Ni Sheaghdha said: “This recruitment freeze represents a serious error on the part of the employer, and the impact on the provision of care is going to be disastrous.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times