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Anne-Marie Walsh: 'All ideas should be explored to end row - and help save money'

  

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During failed talks to halt yesterday's national nurses' strike, the leader of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said her team had a lot of ideas to save money to fund a pay rise that didn't even get an airing.

The impression given by Phil Ní Sheaghdha was that Government officials sat in a room at the Workplace Relations Commission, put nothing on the table, and then headed home. But it is worth looking at these ideas - not just to try and halt the five strikes that are coming down the tracks in the next fortnight.

The union claims the HSE is overspending on staffing the health service. It says it spends €2m a week, or €100m a year, hiring agency nurses and this is above the norm.

The logic of pushing up nurses' pay, it says, would mean there would be more candidates to fill vacancies without having to resort to agencies. It also says money would also be saved because agency staff are paid between 20pc and 44pc more in some cases.

Agency nurses' basic pay may be more expensive and the agency obviously gets a cut from the HSE, but they don't come with other costs that permanent staff do, including pensions.

Another area where the union says there is potential for cost savings is in reducing the need for overseas recruitment agencies, who get a €10,000 cut for every nurse they hire from abroad. However, this is open to question in terms of what it would deliver as it would reduce the pool of experienced staff that could be recruited.

But it would be worth hearing from the HSE if any of these options could be a runner in terms of generating a pot of money.

If they are, the Government would be off the hook in terms of having to borrow. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that is the only way a pay demand can be dealt with.

But even if savings can be found from existing resources, it is unlikely to stave off the domino effect of other public servants coming forward for a slice of the action.

Members of the Defences Forces or teachers, who are also up in arms about their pay, could also come up with a list of potential savings.

An INMO spokesperson even admitted that the prospect of knock-on claims from other public servants was a "challenge", but said the Government was going to have to make some hard choices. But the union may have to do so too - particularly if public support begins to wane in the weeks ahead and there are more cancellations and disruption.

There may be a lot to be gained if the Government agrees to set up some kind of review body to benchmark nurses' roles and pay against other healthcare professionals.

But this would likely be on condition that there are no demands for pay rises before the current pay deal runs out next year.

It wouldn't be a huge wait for nurses to park their demand for an up-front pay hike, especially as their wages are going to rise by almost €3,000 in the meantime, and a €20m deal for specialised grades is on the table.

Irish Independent