Hospitals will become dangerous and a risk to patients if nurses continue with their strike action, Health Minister Simon Harris warned today.
Speaking in the Dail as the nurses took to the picket lines for the third day he said the "stakes are high."
Some 37,000 outpatients have had their bookings cancelled and 6,000 operations have not been allowed go ahead so far as a result of the action he said.
He said it is vital that the industrial action ends as soon as possible and the Government is "sincere" in its offer to talk to unions.
But meeting the pay demands of the nurses would put the public finances into an unsustainable spiral.
Nurses are getting a pay rise under the current wage agreement and it would be unfair to other unions which are abiding by its rules to single out one profession for more pay, he added.
The government was committed to "coming to a satisfactory solution for all parties involved" but it has to be in keeping with the terms of the public service and stability agreement.
"I hear a lot of people say a solution could be found within the agreement. I think there's a duty on people to outline how exactly they would bring that solution about, because any solution to this dispute must be affordable and fair".
Opposition TDs were united in their support for the nurses. Fianna Fail spokesman on health Deputy Stephen Donnelly criticised the invitation to talks "by press release" issued by Minister Harris and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohue.
This showed a lack of courtesy to the nurses who were not contacted directly before it was issued, he added.
Other TDS urged the minister to pick up the phone and talk to the leaders of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
Meanwhile, the General Secretary of the INMO Phil Ní Sheaghdha has insisted there will be no weakening of public support for striking nurses and midwives despite three consecutive strike days planned next week.
Next week nurses will down tools and take to the picket lines for three consecutive days of strike action from Tuesday to Thursday, forcing thousands more appointments to be cancelled and putting pressure on emergency departments.
Speaking at the Coombe Women and Infants Hospital In Dublin this morning on what is the third day of industrial action, INMO chief Phil Ní Sheaghdha said she was confident the public would continue to support the action.
"I think the public are very adamant. They know why the nurses and midwives are taking this action," she said.
"They know that it is because the public health service is understaffed and will not be there when we need it, particularly up to 2030 when we know our population and our ageing population will have an even bigger demand and a bigger need for the health service."
The INMO chief also said the National Children’s Hospital, which has become a huge headache for the government after estimated development costs ran well over budget, will see "closed beds" when it is finished due to nurse shortages.
"When you think about the children’s hospital for example we need a minimum of 300 additional nurses to open it and there is absolutely no hope that we will have those numbers. So we’ll have a hospital with closed beds."
Nurse Emma Feely from Dublin who works on the Ante-Natal ward at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin said she understands the "frustration of patients" but that support will continue regardless of the duration of the industrial action.
"i think the public will stick behind us and support us in the hope that this dispute will come to an end soon.
"I think people will start to get frustrated and hopefully that will just show how necessary that the services are, that the nursing staff are so important in the hospital."
Patients currently being treated at the hospital have already raised concerns that they would not receive the right treatment during the strike days.
But Ms Feely said the reassurances were given that they will be looked after while the dispute continues.
“I think that there was nerves that there would be no care for them in the hospital but our job in the hospital now is to make sure patients and out woman and our babies are safe.
"So I’m reassuring them that we will be providing them with their necessary care," she added.
Meanwhile, unions and TDs held a rally outside Leinster House to encourage the public to attend a march in support of striking healthcare staff.
Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) - who are on their third day of strike - were joined by Opposition TDs in calling for a large attendance at the demonstration on Saturday.
The march will begin at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Street at 12:30pm.
Among TDs present were Labour leader Brendan Howlin, Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty, Social Democrats co-leaders Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall, and Independent Mattie McGrath.
Representatives of the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) who are also taking industrial action attended the rally as well.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said that nurses: "need the people behind them because their strike is not about money. It’s about patient safety, it’s about a quality healthcare service for this country and unless they win this strike and get pay parity so that they can recruit and retain nurses in this country then we all suffer."
INMO member Anna Marie McKenna said: "This is our third of possibly 9 strike days...
"It’s all about pay parity for recruitment and retention.
"There are nurses all over the country that are pinned to their collar, long, long hours for absolutely no pay equality.
"It’s being going on for years and it’s time the government stood up to the plate and did something about it.
"It’s not fair that we’re treated as second class citizens effectively."
PNA member Peter Hughes said the recruitment and retention issue is affecting nurses ability to deliver safe care for everyone.
"We need people to come out and support us," he added.
Health committee chairman Dr Michael Harty said: "This an issue really about reforming our health service. Unless we have nurses we cannot reform our health service."
He said that many nurses have emigrated and "It’s those who are left behind who are standing here on the picket line today."
He added: "The most evocative we saw in the past few weeks were nurses in London, Perth, the Middle East, Australia, North America standing in support of the nurses who are working here.
"It's about reforming our health service and it’s about recruitment and retention."