Doctor strike sparks fears over spread of SARS


Public health doctors have gone on strike today leading to fears that an outbreak of an infectious disease in the State could not be properly contained.

Over 300 doctors have taken strike action of indefinite duration in a dispute over pay, rostering and working conditions. The doctors are responsible for the monitoring and control of infectious diseases through the National Disease Surveillance Centre and regional health boards.

The action comes at a time of concern over the global outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a lethal pneumonia-like virus that has claimed the lives of over 120 people.

There has been a probable case detected in Ireland and despite tests on a number of suspect cases proving negative, Labour's spokesperson on health, Ms Liz McManus says the doctors' action leaves Ireland without the necessary personnel or procedures to deal with an outbreak such as SARS.

Fine Gael's health spokesperson, Ms Olivia Mitchell has described Ireland as "highly vulnerable to public health threats". And the Health Service Employers Agency (HSEA) says the emergency cover being provided by doctors is inadequate.

Apart from high-profile dangers like SARS, public health doctors are also responsible for containing and monitoring hepatitis, measles, meningitis, salmonella and the Winter Vomitting Bug which is still affecting hospitals throughout the country.

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has been negotiating with the HSEA who say the strike is unprecedented because it has not been referred to any form of arbitration and all avenues of discussion have not been exhausted.

But the IMO also claims the Department last year refused to bring the issue to the Labour Relations Commission

The doctors also say their concerns are long-standing yet nothing has been done to address their concerns. President of the IMO, Dr Kate Ganter says the doctors were left with "no choice" because employers have been "abusing the goodwill" of doctors.

"They have tolerated over nine years of inaction, broken agreements and delays in implementing agreed recommendations to develop Public Health Services in the interest of public safety," Ms Ganter said.

Ms McManus has called on the Minister for Health, Mr Martin, to intervene, while Ms Mitchell says all parties must return to negotiations. But no talks are planned at this time.

The dispute dates back to 1994 when, according to the IMO, a series of recommendations aimed at restructuring the pay and responsibilities of public health doctors were not implemented in exchange for changes to work practice.

The doctors have also been providing an out-of-hours service without pay, and want to be rostered around the clock to deal with threats to public health.