Dáil row as Taoiseach accused of failing to engage with nurses

Varadkar insists he cannot move beyond current national pay deal

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin: said there was a ‘serious malaise’ in the health service.  Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin: said there was a ‘serious malaise’ in the health service. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

As nurses go on strike across the country, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted that he cannot move beyond the current national pay deal and the State’s dispute resolution procedures.

In the Dáil on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar was accused by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald of failing to engage or to offer solutions as 35,000 nurses began a 24-hour strike with plans for further strikes in February.

Mr Martin said there was a “serious malaise” in the health service when between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of nurses were moving abroad on graduation because of the poor pay and morale and working conditions.

At the same time, he said, the Government was spending hundreds of thousands recruiting nurses from outside the EU, showing the imbalance in the system.

When the Taoiseach said the Government could not stand over borrowing €300 million for nurses, Mr Martin said that nobody was asking him to borrow money.

Mr Martin said Mr Varadkar had given no indication of a way forward and claimed the Taoiseach had never previously invoked Brexit when the dispute was developing.

Ms McDonald accused the Taoiseach of “reaching for the Brexit excuse”.

She claimed that both he and Minister for Health Simon Harris were hiding behind the possible impact of a no deal Brexit.

Ms McDonald told Mr Varadkar that “you of all people as a medical doctor” should know what was at stake. She said he should engage directly with the nurses and stop talking about using the existing industrial relations machinery.

In reply, the Taoiseach said he had no doubt about the depth of feeling for the nurses and their commitment to continue their dispute.

He said he recognised that they had a large level of public support but insisted he could not move beyond the existing national pay deal and dispute resolution procedures.

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

“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.

He added he was confident the 2,000 operations and 25,000 appointments postponed could be made up during the spring.