Nurses strike: Taoiseach rejects call for review of pay claim

Almost 40,000 members of the nurses union plan to strike on Tuesday and Thursday

Nurses pictured on the picket line outside St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin on Wednesday as part of a dispute over pay. Photograph: Collins

Nurses pictured on the picket line outside St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin on Wednesday as part of a dispute over pay. Photograph: Collins

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has rejected calls for an independent review of striking nurses’ pay claim but said the Government does not intend to withhold payments due to them under public sector pay agreements.

Mr Varadkar said he regretted the enormous inconvenience to patients caused by the strike. Even if the next one-day strike on Tuesday was to be called off, it would be too late to reverse the cancellation of thousands of patients’ appointments and procedures.

Following a 24-hour stoppage last week, almost 40,000 members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) plan to hold 24-hour strikes on Tuesday and Thursday.

The HSE said it expected all hospital outpatient, inpatient and day-surgery appointments scheduled for Tuesday would be cancelled.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Sunday that despite the strike the Government does not intend to withhold payments due to nurses under public sector pay agreements. Photograph: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Sunday that despite the strike the Government does not intend to withhold payments due to nurses under public sector pay agreements. Photograph: PA

Members of the INMO are also planning work stoppages for three days the following week, on February 12th, 13th and 14th, the 19th and 21st.

Efforts to resolve the dispute have so far come to naught.

Asked whether the nurses had breached the public sector stability agreement by striking, Mr Varadkar told RTÉ Radio’s This Week programme “technically” they had.

‘Provocative’

However, he did not plan to stop the extra payments due under the agreement as this might be “provocative and counter-productive”.

The Government took this action in a previous dispute involving secondary teachers.

“At a certain point, we will have to treat them [nurses] the same as secondary teachers but at the moment that would be a provocative and an escalation, and would make it more difficult to resolve” the dispute, Mr Varadkar said.

The Taoiseach said he understood nurses felt aggrieved over their pay and conditions, and had “enormous” public support.

However, the Government had to be fair to the taxpayer and other workers.

While the INMO has suggested its pay claim could be funded through savings made on agency nurse spending, Mr Varadkar said he did not think this “stacked up”.

Previous initiatives, such as the ending of the recruitment embargo for nurses and the transfer of tasks, had not resulted in a reduction in spending on agency staff or overtime.

He also expressed doubt about calls for an independent review of the nurses’ claim. This had happened already, when the public sector pay commission examined issues around recruitment and retention in the nursing profession and made recommendations, which the INMO rejected.

Post-Brexit

Mr Varadkar said he did not know what the financial position of the country would be in eight weeks’ time, post-Brexit. Public sector pay spending was €19 billion this year, up €900 million and including €450 million in pay increases. This was the “limit of affordability”, he said.

Any solution to the dispute would have to bring the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) on board, be fair to other public sector workers and not involve knock-on claims.

Engagement was possible if it was under the umbrella of Ictu and where the cost would not be unfair to the taxpayer, he said.

The INMO is seeking pay parity with other graduate-entry health professional grades such as physiotherapists who it maintains are paid about €7,000 more than nurses.

The union argues such increases are necessary to deal with recruitment and retention issues in the health service.