No indication of new intervention to try avert further strikes by nurses

Harris insists Government cannot offer any increases outside public service deal

Minister for Health Simon Harris said the Government wanted to find a resolution and suggested that ultimately unions and management may find themselves once again back at the Labour Court Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Health Simon Harris said the Government wanted to find a resolution and suggested that ultimately unions and management may find themselves once again back at the Labour Court Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

After the first of potentially six 24-hour strikes by nurses and midwives, there is no indication of any further imminent intervention aimed at resolving the current dispute.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said the Government wanted to find a resolution and suggested that ultimately unions and management may find themselves once again back at the Labour Court.

The Labour Court said on Monday that it would continue to assess what assistance it might provide at the appropriate time.

However there was no sign last night that it believed the parties had reached a point where brokering a deal could prove more feasible.

Psychiatric nurses

The industrial relations situation in the health service is set to worsen on Thursday as up to 6,000 psychiatric nurses put in place an overtime ban.

The Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) has also said that where the full complement of staff was not available for a shift, the union’s members would not work.

The general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) Phil Ní Sheaghdha on Wednesday did not rule out additional strikes on top of the six 24-hour stoppages already announced if there was no resolution to the current dispute over pay and staffing issues.

The next stoppage is due to take place on Tuesday, February 5th.

However Mr Harris insisted the Government could not offer increases to nurses over and above those set out in the current public service agreement, as this would lead to widespread knock-on demands by other groups of State employees.

The Minister said under the accord, unions who secured benefits from its provisions, in return could not lodge cost-increasing claims while it was in place.

Nurses seeking pay parity with other groups at a cost of €300million was “by any court a cost-rising claim”, he said.

Mr Harris said a no-deal Brexit was a real and daunting risk for the country. He said the idea , weeks out from a potential no-deal Brexit , “of taking any action that would undermine the public service agreement would be grossly irresponsible”.

Mr Harris was coy about whether the Government considered nurses had stepped outside the public service agreement by going on strike on Wednesday and whether they would now face the imposition of financial penalties.

The Minister said he wanted to find a resolution to the strike and did not want to be upping the ante by talking about financial sanctions.

“I do not want to be in that space today. The Government is not in that space today”, he said. Mr Harris said the Department of Public Expenditure would “legally consider” the issue of applying sanctions on members of the INMO in the coming days and weeks.

Giving back

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also insisted that the Government could not move beyond the current national pay deal.

Mr Varadkar said he could not borrow to fund the pay increases but if the economy continued to grow as it had done, the Government expected income tax to go up by €1.2 billion and would give half that back to 900,000 taxpayers, including nurses.

“Any solution has to fair to other public servants, has to be affordable to taxpayers, and it has to be fair and beneficial to patients,” Mr Varadkar said.

Separately the Department of Public Expenditure and the INMO exchanged conflicting claims regarding nurses’ pay and staffing levels.

Ms Ní Sheaghdha maintained that when the current public service agreement expires in 2020 nurses’ pay would still be lower than it was in 2008.

She also maintained they are working longer hours than they were in 2008 before the economic crash.

The Department of Public Expenditure maintained that any staff nurse or senior staff nurses employed in 2008 will be earning more in 2020 than they were then.

For example a staff nurse on the max of the scale in 2008 (€46,541) will be on €47,431 by 2020, if they haven’t been promoted in the interim.

Already the average pay for a nurse in 2018 exceeds the average pay in 2007. It was €56,223 including overtime and allowances in 2018 and €55,929 in 2007.