THE Health Service Executive (HSE) has reported "strong interest and enquiries" about its controversial scheme to employ 1,000 graduate nurses on lower salaries.
The first phase of the scheme offering the newly qualified nurses jobs in hospitals kicked off yesterday despite bitter opposition from nursing unions.
The nurses will get a two-year contract at €21,769 a year, which is just 80pc of the rate of a regular new recruit. But they can top this up with another €4,000 in premium payments.
"Informal interest and enquiries regarding the scheme has been strong since it was announced in December," said an HSE spokeswoman
The closing date for the first- phase applications is noon next Thursday and the expectation is that successful recruits will start work next month.
The second phase, in February, will cover jobs in mental health, and the third, which will start in March, will involve posts in intellectual disability, midwifery and paediatrics.
Earlier, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses Association urged new graduates "not to be taken in by the HSE's disingenuous marketing of these contracts as a great start to their nursing careers".
They said the programme was nothing other than a "false start" and claimed that experienced nurses working for agencies and on temporary contracts were being sacked to make way for the new recruits.
"Both unions reiterate it is nothing other than an attempt to introduce cheap labour under a superficial guise of an educational graduate programme," they added in a statement.
However, Barry O'Brien, HSE head of human resources, said nobody was being sacked as these were additional jobs.
He said the only option previously for the nurses was emigration.
The HSE described the scheme as an "exceptional opportunity" to significantly reduce agency usage and overtime.
Meanwhile, Health Minister James Reilly said he expected that any voluntary redundancy scheme which would apply to the public service would be a targeted one as far as the health service was concerned.
The HSE plans to reduce its full-time workforce by nearly 4,000 this year through resignations, retirements and the proposed voluntary redundancy scheme, the details of which have yet to be revealed.
Referring to the proposed loss of full medical cards by 40,000 people this year under HSE cuts, he said many of these would qualify for a GP visit card which would still provide them with free doctor care.