Striking doctors and nurses may bring hospitals to a standstill
Struggling hospitals may be plunged into chaos in January as junior doctors threaten industrial action in a dispute which would cost over €12m to settle.
The action by trainee medics - who are crucial to the running of hospitals - could hit services early in the new year and coincide with a separate work-to-rule and work stoppages by nurses.
If both disputes clash, hospitals will be almost brought to a standstill with serious risks to patients.
Tensions escalated yesterday as thousands of junior doctors in the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) declared they will begin balloting for industrial action - up to and including striking.
The dispute is over the failure to restore a €3,182 living-out allowance, which was abolished for new recruits in 2012.
Around 4,000 junior doctors currently working in the health service would benefit from the restoration of the allowance.
It is aimed at helping with the rental costs of the young trainees, who must change location every six months.
Talks to settle the dispute were due to get underway with the IMO yesterday - but in a shock move Health Department officials announced they could not proceed.
The union representatives were told they would have to put the claim to the Public Service Pay Commission.
The original invitation to talks had come from the department after the IMO brought High Court proceedings.
Junior doctors' leader Dr John Duddy said last night the ballot will start in the coming weeks.
"It is just a further example of the lack of respect for doctors and ignoring the crisis we have in retaining doctors in Ireland," he said.
"It is typical of Government to reach agreements and breach them within a matter of weeks.
"Doctors will have no choice now but to consider all avenues to have our issues resolved, including industrial action.
"No doctor wants to strike and indeed it would be with great reluctance that we would embark on such an action, but in the face of a Government that behaves in such a manner we will have no choice."
In a joint statement yesterday, Health Minister Simon Harris and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe said there was no money available to pay the doctors.
They insisted that "restoration of the allowance involves potentially significant Exchequer resources".
These have not been provided for in either the current or next year's budgetary provision, they said.
They said the claim would "need to be considered in the context of wider public sector engagement."
Many doctors who graduated since 2012 are working abroad and would not be eligible.
The restoration would cost over €12m going forward. Retrospection would add another €48m to the bill.
But this retrospection was not going to be pursued.
However, the retrospection may end up potentially being recommended when the case is heard by the High Court in February.
This would pose a massive financial headache for the Government.
Nurses are also to begin balloting later this month in protest at the failure to come up with incentives to recruit and retain staff.
If they vote in favour of action it will trigger in January when hospitals are severely overcrowded due to flu and a post-Christmas influx of patients.
The uncertainty sparked by the two potential disputes will also damage efforts to try to reduce hospital waiting lists which are at record levels.
The trolley crisis is also worsening, with 424 waiting for a bed across the country yesterday morning.
The doctors' sense of grievance is made worse when they point to other precedents for the return of allowances to firefighters and gardaí.
The gardaí saw their rent allowance of €4,017 returned.
Teachers in the INTO and TUI have also had their honours primary degree allowance, of €4,918, also restored for new entrants.