It is hard to comprehend that something acknowledged two decades ago could be allowed to fester to the extent it would cause serious disruption to an already stressed health service.
Yet such was the case regarding the breakdown in relations between the medical scientists who withdrew laboratory services yesterday and last week. The fact they have agreed to suspend their dispute over pay for a second day today is to be welcomed. There will be relief all around that reason has held sway as exploratory talks in the Labour Court take place.
But how did it ever come to this? The anomalies and disparities in their income levels in relation to other workers were first acknowledged 20 years ago.
Frustration levels had escalated to a point where, unless demands were met, three more days of strikes were planned next week – a step that could only plunge an already over-stretched hospital service into deeper chaos. The workers are on site 24/7, 365 days a year and have been in the thick of it throughout the pandemic.
Nonetheless, the nuclear option of strike action is invariably mutually destructive.
A meltdown on such a scale after so many years speaks to failure on many levels. Pickets were even placed at the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.
The work of the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) is so pivotal that any stoppage inevitably affects most routine hospital and GP services. These include analysis of blood and urine samples, scans and other tests across the entire country.
Given what was at stake, it is inexplicable that matters should have been allowed to deteriorate.
Every effort must now be made to resolve issues. Hospital waiting lists, along with delays in many procedures, are already at record levels. The last place such essential workers need to be is on the picket line.
It therefore behoves the MLSA, the HSE, Department of Health and the minister to find solutions, and quickly.
If, as the union claims, they are paid less than colleagues who carry out the same work – and in some cases, even less than staff on lower grades – then bridging the gap sounds reasonable. Either way, patients should not suffer for years of prevarication by the department, the HSE or successive ministers.
Members complain of “total burnout” and insist they are simply seeking the same rates as lab workers doing identical work to theirs.
The department, for its part, insists: “The current public service agreement, Building Momentum, includes the process of sectoral bargaining to address outstanding claims such as this one.”
Such an argument would be easier to accept were it not for the fact the “outstanding claim” has been a source of contention for two decades.
Hopefully, sense can still prevail. It serves no one’s interests for sick people to be caught in the industrial crossfire and put at even more severe risk.