Consultants threaten to walk away from talks

 

Hospital consultants have said they will walk away from negotiations with the Government on a new contract if given a take-it-or-leave-it offer at the next scheduled talks at the end of January.

The Irish Hospital Consultants' Association (IHCA) yesterday reacted furiously to comments by Minister for Health Mary Harney that she will begin recruiting hundreds of new senior hospital doctors under revised terms and conditions if a deal is not struck on a new contract with existing personnel within the next few months.

Under her proposals these new consultants would only treat public patients.

Secretary general of the IHCA Finbarr Fitzpatrick said his association had told Ms Harney from the time of her appointment that it would be prepared to provide flexibility in working arrangements and agree to a target date for the completion of talks, but that it would not accept a guillotine for the ending of negotiations or the imposition of a new contract.

He confirmed that consultants would not co-operate with any new recruitment programme for senior doctors introduced by the Government.

Mr Fitzpatrick said his members would refuse to serve on interview panels or shortlist candidates for such new consultant posts. They would also advise colleagues in the UK about industrial action over the new posts and urge them not to become involved in the recruitment process either.

He maintained that it would be impractical for hospitals to have two separate groups of consultants working side by side on different working arrangements.

He asked whether smaller hospitals would have two sets of doctors, one group to treat public patients and the other to deal with those with private health insurance.

In an interview with The Irish Times Ms Harney said the Government was not prepared to wait around all year trying to get agreement with hospital consultants on a new contract.

She set a deadline of spring for a deal and said if this was not reached the Government would leave existing consultants with their current contract and move to appoint hundreds of new senior doctors under revised terms and conditions which would include restrictions on rights to private practice.

Mr Fitzpatrick said the IHCA was deeply unhappy and disappointed at the belligerent tone in the Minister's comments.

He said the IHCA was not surprised as it believed that part of Ms Harney's agenda in moving to the Department of Health was "to sort out consultants".

He said the association as far back as 1999 had proposed greater flexibility in working arrangements under a new contract. However, it would not accept a new contract being rammed down its throat or negotiating with a gun to its head.

Talks on a new contract with consultants originally got under way in 2003 but were delayed for more than a year because of a dispute over a new insurance system.