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Frontline services in crisis as gardai and nurses quit

A €1bn exodus of public service workers including nearly 2,000 frontline nurses, medics and dentists and hundreds of gardai is set to bring more chaos to the health system and rob policing of many of its most experienced officers.

The flight from the public sector has gained momentum in the last few weeks, with some 7,500 now due to leave by February 29 -- a move that will ensure they retain their pension and retirement tax-free lump sum based on their salary in 2009.

The retirement exodus will cost the taxpayer an estimated €1bn in lump sum and pension payments, according to figures secured by the Fianna Fail public expenditure and reform spokesman, Sean Fleming.

Last year, 860 retiring public sector workers pocketed €80.5m in lump sum payments, making the average individual payment some €100,000.

The latest figure of 7,500 public servants from all sectors leaving by the end of next month is provisional.

Workers who have applied can withdraw their resignation at any time between now and February 29.

But it is clear the Government is well on target to slash its overall numbers by 9,000, as it aims to cut the massive public sector wage bill.

The issue is that the numbers of frontline workers who have decided to leave will inevitably cause problems in the delivery of the most vital services provided by the public sector.

In health, 3,313 people have indicated they will leave, including 1,612 nurses and 128 people described as "medical and dentist".

The HSE figures also show 353 general support staff and 314 health and social care professionals. Worryingly, 613 patient and client care workers also intend to go.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has already warned that the transition period "will prove difficult".

Ironically, 18 people in his own department and the Department of Finance have applied to retire by the end of February.

Hundreds of experienced teachers will also leave, with the Department of Education statistics showing that 640 primary school teachers and 465 secondary school teachers have indicated their intention to retire.

Many of the teachers will undoubtedly be senior educators who are still preparing students for mock Junior Cert and Leaving Cert examinations -- a vital preparation for the real exams in the summer.

There are 31 approved applications for early retirement within the Department of Education as well, including administrative grades, school inspectors and NEPS psychologists.

Some of the most experienced members of the gardai will retire, including four out of 12 assistant commissioners and 15 chief superintendents -- more than a quarter of the officers to have reached that rank.

About one in three superintendents, 45 out of 152 posts, will also go, as will 650 rank-and-file gardai.

It has been estimated that 30 towns will be left without a senior officer.

The exodus continues across the public sector with 750 local authority workers set to leave along with 55 people directly attached to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

In the Defence Forces, the loss of uniforms began to bite in November when there were 93 military retirements followed by 94 in December, 99 this month and 199 more due to go next month.

In all, 28 civil servants and civilian staff in the Department of Defence will also step down.

There are compelling reasons why so many public sector workers are considering giving up work. If they miss the February 29 deadline, their pensions will be hit by cuts.

Even the Department of Foreign Affairs will lose some of its most senior staffers at Iveagh House.

Mr Howlin admitted last week that the avalanche of retirements will present a "real test of the Croke Park Agreement" when it comes to flexible work practices and relocating staff.

He previously asked for staff to give three months' notice of retirement plans, pointing out that it would be "critical" for managers to be on top of the figures in order to protect services, but workers have no legal obligation to give more than a month's notice.

Five people from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs have indicated their intention to retire. Their work ranges from clerical to senior management level and a total of 17 staff from across the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have have also confirmed their intention to retire, according to figures compiled by the Sunday Independent.

Mr Fleming expressed concern over the impact of "these Premiership soccer-style pay-offs" on the exchequer finances, particularly given the scale of redundancies that are planned for this year.

He said: "We are going to spend €1bn to reduce the public sector workforce by just 7,500 workers and deteriorate front-line services even further.''

He added that "these lump sum payments are earned entitlements'' but also warned that "there is more than a small degree of the economics of cutting your nose off to spite your face in these proposals''.

The FF TD expressed particular concerns "at the consequences of these departures for frontline hospital services given that the HSE is going to have to find €250m from current budgets to fund this exodus".

He suggested that to avoid further pressure on health services, a moratorium should be put on frontline posts such as nurses so the current incentives for early retirement are extended for another year.

The questions by Mr Fleming also revealed the payment for each retiring public sector worker ranged from a high in Taoiseach Enda Kenny's department, where four senior officials received lump sum payments totalling €698,906, to a lower average of about €55,000 each in payouts in Joan Burton's Social Protection Department, where 117 frontline workers received €6.4m.

Within Mr Howlin's own department, the average lump sum payments topped €122,500. At the National Education Welfare Board, two retirees shared €175,371.39.

Sunday Independent