THE ability of nurses to provide safe care to patients will be further hit this year with the net loss of another 2,500 posts, the country's biggest nursing union has claimed.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said staffing levels were already at critical and unsafe levels in hospitals due to repeated cuts.
The union insisted that there should be mandatory nurse-patient ratios introduced in order to guarantee patient safety.
Liam Doran, head of the INMO, told the Oireachtas Health Committee that a survey commissioned by the union showed areas like intensive care are particularly affected by a fall in nursing numbers.
Mr Doran was challenged by Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick of Fine Gael, who said the offer of a two-year contract to graduate nurses on salaries of €22,000 with the potential to earn €26,000 through premium payments was a "fantastic opportunity".
Mr Doran insisted that the funding directed to the graduate nurses scheme was taken from hospitals' spending on agency nurses.
The employment of nurses through the graduate programme was redirecting monies from agency employment, Mr Doran said. It meant that experienced staff were replaced by new graduates.
Meanwhile, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, who has previously expressed strong support for the nurses graduate scheme, repeated his view that it offered nurses a good opportunity.
He told the Dail that the proposal was about creating jobs.
"That is our top priority," he added.
"It is about getting people into employment and gaining experience."
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin claimed that Health Minister James Reilly (pictured) had said that if nurses and midwives were not happy with the initiative, they could emigrate or work in fast food outlets.