HOSPITAL patients face the threat of disruption as more than 40,000 nurses are set to go on strike on six dates from the end of this month.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has announced a series of stoppages unless the government agrees to give them pay rises.
They will strike on January 30 for 24 hours and if the dispute is unresolved on further dates on February 5, 7, 12, 13 and 14.
Nurses will strike for the 24 hour period, providing only lifesaving care and emergency response teams.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association, representing another 6,000 nurses, will announce its strike dates on Thursday.
The unions claim there is a recruitment and retention crisis among nurses and midwives that is fuelled by low wages.
The unions want rises to bring nurses' wages in line with other staff, including respiratory technicians, whose pay at €53,372 a year is €7,671 higher than a nurse’s €45,701 basic pay rate after 15 years.
The Minister for Health, Simon Harris said today he does not believe that industrial action is warranted and could be avoided.
The Minister said he believes there is a clear need for engagement and it is essential that the time is used by all sides to find a resolution to this dispute.
In that context, health sector management will invite the INMO to meet with them next week.
The number of staff nurses fell by 1,754 (6pc) between 2008 and 2018, despite an ageing, growing population making the health service busier.
“This would be only the second national strike in the INMO’s hundred-year history”, said INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha.
“Going on strike is the last thing a nurse or midwife wants to do. But the crisis in recruitment and retention has made it impossible for us to do our jobs properly. We are not able give patients the care they deserve under these conditions.
“The HSE simply cannot recruit enough nurses and midwives on these wages. Until that changes, the health service will continue to go understaffed and patient care will be compromised.
“The ball is in the government’s court. This strike can be averted. All it takes is for the government to acknowledge our concerns, engage with us directly, and work to resolve this issue, in a pro-active manner.
“We were due to meet with the government in the national oversight body in December, but the meeting was cancelled. Like many patients in Ireland’s health service, we are still waiting for an appointment.”
INMO President Martina Harkin-Kelly said:“We entered these professions because we care for our patients. We’ll be going on strike for the exact same reason. Ireland’s patients deserve better than this understaffed health service.
“Nurses and midwives are now globally traded assets. The public health service no longer pays a competitive wage, so we can no longer get the necessary number of nurses and midwives.
“We are calling on the public to support us. Nurses and midwives are always there for you when you need help. Now we need your help.”
However, the nurses will face serious financial repercussions if they take industrial action.
A spokesperson at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said public servants who take any industrial action face a nine month day in pay rises due under that deal.
Their increments will be frozen until the end of 2020.
In addition, they would pay more pension contributions than their colleagues and would not benefit from a €20m government offer for specialised nursing grades due to recruitment difficulties.
They would also lose measures to reverse the two-tier pay for recent recruits worth €3,300 each.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned that any extra funds available will be used to protect the most vulnerable jobs if the UK crashes out of the EU in March - not wage hikes.
He also said that patients will be hit as surgeries and appointments will be cancelled if a strike takes place..
“We have an agreement which we have concluded with all public servants, including the nursing unions, and we will honour that,” he said.
“It involves an across-the-board pay increase in the Autumn for everyone and an incremental pay increase for the vast majority of nurses.
“It involves also a special pay increase for new entrant staff, those recruited after 2012, worth around €3,000 a year to roughly ten thousand nurses, and there has been a special increase in January for those earning below €30,000 a year.
He said the public sector pay commission has already examined the issue of nursing retention, and made recommendations for increased allowances for nurses in areas where there is a real difficulty with recruitment and retention.
“But unfortunately two of the nursing unions object to that, and that is why we are heading into potential dispute,” he said.
He said the Workplace Relations Commission and the the Labour Court will be available to assist in trying to come to a resolution.
“At a time when we are finally getting waiting lists down when it comes to operations and procedures, I would really regret if a few days of strike action was to cause us to lose that progress,” he added.
And Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe claimed nurses' demands for increases on top of pay rises due under an existing pay deal threatens to take the State back to the "bad old days" and are "unsustainable".
Health Minister Simon Harris said the last thing the health service needed was a strike.
He called for talks but warned "we can't just pick and choose bits of the public sector agreement that we like".
But the INMO and Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) warned they will forge ahead with strikes unless ministers discuss their grievances.
INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha claims uncompetitive wages made it impossible to recruit enough nurses and midwives and the HSE only received one application for every four posts.
She claimed the unions' demands could be dealt with within the existing pay deal. However, ministers claim granting them would be a breach of the deal.
The Public Service Pay Commission found no recruitment crisis among nurses and recommended increases for specialised grades. But a Government offer worth €20m for these nurses was rejected.