Relief for patients as threat of 'catastrophic' 72-hour strike is lifted
Patients have narrowly avoided three days of back-to-back hospital strikes that would have plunged the health service into chaos from next Tuesday.
A threatened 72-hour stoppage by up to 10,000 health support staff in a row over pay was called off following talks at the Labour Court.
Hospital consultants warned that the potential impact of the walkout would have been "catastrophic".
An invitation to talks was issued following a 24-hour strike by the workers that led to the cancellation of 2,000 appointments and severe disruption to hospital services on Wednesday.
Siptu officials agreed to suspend the strikes after the court requested it, ahead of a full hearing in an attempt to resolve the dispute next week.
It has also been revealed that the union is set to demand that increases being sought on the back of a job evaluation scheme worth in the region of €19m are backdated.
But it is unclear how much the arrears due since October last year would add to the amount being demanded.
Union negotiators attended a preliminary hearing with Government officials yesterday so the court could decide whether there were grounds to make a formal intervention.
Siptu health division organiser Paul Bell warned that there had been no movement from either side and described the talks so far as "torturous".
"We deferred the strikes on the basis that the Labour Court requested us to do so, so that they can investigate the matter with a full hearing starting on Wednesday next," he said.
"This would be common practice and as far as we're concerned it's a welcome development. The Labour Court has decided to take this matter on and try and bring the parties to a conclusion."
He said the court's recommendation would not be binding - which Government officials had wanted - and would be put to a staff ballot.
The support staff, including healthcare assistants, theatre assistants, porters, laboratory aides, and chefs, are demanding increases due under a job evaluation scheme conducted by the HSE.
They say that wage rises due by moving onto higher pay scales are worth between €1,500 and €3,000 each.
Mr Bell said the Government had offered an increase worth €1.2m on November 1 this year, followed by a payment next year that he said would have been "nowhere near" what was sought.
He said although the amount due was previously accepted by the HSE and Department of Health, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform did not believe it had to pay it.
Mr Bell said a separate job evaluation for chefs had not been progressed at all.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe welcomed the strike deferral and fresh talks.
"Every effort must be made to ensure that the adverse impact of strike action on our health service is avoided," he said.
Health Minister Simon Harris said the workers had a "legitimate point" in some of their grievances.
He said he did not believe the gap between the Government and the union was very wide. Management made a significant move from its original position that increases would not be paid until 2021, he added.