'This is absolutely a last resort' - Nurses hit the picket lines outside Wexford General Hospital
Pádraig Byrne spoke to nurses staging the first of a number of planned pickets on a bitterly cold January day outside Wexford Hospital
While they certainly had to brave the cold, the winter sun shone on nurses and midwives as they picketed Wexford General Hospital on Wednesday as part of a nationwide protest revolving around pay and conditions.
Spirits were high and throughout the day, some of the midwives even generated a few laughs with creative signs such as 'Leo, Make Womb In Your Budget' and 'We are having a Midwife Crisis'.
While outside the hospital was a flurry of activity, inside things were a little quieter. Although patients and other medical professionals still milled about, there was a noticeable absence of nurses as they stood in the cold outside.
Local INMO Representatives Emer Ward and Bríd Jordan Murphy stated that while all elective procedures had been cancelled for the day, the wards at the hospital were being covered and that high risk areas were being staffed as normal.
'Things are constantly being monitored,' Emer said. 'There's additional staff available if necessary and we have on-call teams to deal with any theatre emergencies or anything like that.'
While the cancelling of elective procedures, they said, was regrettable, they pointed out that cancellations had become common place.
'Every day, most appointments are cancelled due to over-crowding in the hospital anyway,' said Bríd. 'The cancellation of elective procedures is happening on a daily basis at this stage.'
According to the nurses, the main focus of the strike is to do with the recruitment and retention of staff. They say that nurses are the lowest paid graduate health professionals by some margin and it's growing increasingly difficult to attract young people into the profession, while many opt to leave Ireland and work in countries where the conditions are more favourable.
'The government has put in place every other possible mechanism to try and deal with recruitment and the retention of staff and it hasn't worked,' said Emer. 'The one thing they haven't tried is looking at pay. Nurses still haven't gained pay parity with other graduate healthcare professionals. Often they'll have trained side by side with other healthcare colleagues and yet they start off on a salary that can be up to €7,000 lower. For every four jobs that are advertised at the moment, only one application comes in.'
Wexford General Hospital, they say, is being hit just as hard as anywhere else with staff often opting to leave and try their luck elsewhere.
'We're trying to encourage staff from Wexford to come back and live here,' Emer said. 'However, retaining them is often the big issue. Younger nurses just won't put up with the conditions and they will move on elsewhere.'
One of the favoured destinations currently is the UK, where pay-parity has existed among healthcare professionals for over ten years.
'A lot of the nurses here will do six months on their postgrad and then they're gone,' said Bríd. 'We've also had staff who've gone off and taken a leave of absence to work in the likes of the UAE and they cannot believe how bad things are when they come back.'
'I worked in the UK myself for years,' explained Emer. 'I came back around 21 years ago and we've been discussing pay parity ever since.'
Speaking on the eve of the strike, the choice of words from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar perhaps only served to inflame tensions with the nurses. He suggested that 'it would not be fair to taxpayers' and other health professionals to borrow money to fund pay increases - increases which he says could amount to over €300million.
Having worked in Wexford General briefly himself in his early years as a doctor, there was certain surprise on the picket lines in relation to the Taoiseach's seemingly dismissive attitude towards the strike action.
'Leo's comments don't help,' said Bríd. 'Nobody wants to be out here on the picket line. As a group we are so frustrated. We are dedicated to the job we do. This is not a decision that was taken lightly.'
'What's not fair on the taxpayer is that they are having services, surgeries and appointments constantly cancelled,' added Emer. 'It's not fair that nursing has become a graduate profession, but they are paid much less than those in similar healthcare roles.'
Meanwhile, in a statement, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said that the Labour Court's decision not to intervene in the dispute 'undoubtedly reflects the fundamental issues at dispute between the parties on the claim by nurses who wish to generate additional pay increases over and above those provided under the terms of the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA) to which they have subscribed'.
He said that conceding to the nurses demands for a pay hike over and above those in the current agreement would have 'serious consequences' for public finances and public pay policy and would undoubtedly generate knock-on claims from the rest of the public service workforce.
Both local representatives of the striking nurses say that the support for them at Wexford General on Thursday was fantastic, across the board. 'There's wonderful support in the hospital here for us,' said Emer. 'Our colleagues here understand completely our issues and have been very supportive. They will do nothing to undermine the strike. Also, the service users here in the hospital have been great. They see exactly what's going on themselves and are behind us every step of the way.'
With the INMO and the government seemingly poles apart in their stances, it seems that strike action is set to continue at hospitals around the country, Wexford being one of them.
'It's planned that there'll be two more days next week and three the week after that,' said Emer. 'This has been discussed for the past 12 months and the government hasn't provided what it promised. There have been constant talks for the past four months and nothing has been forthcoming. This is absolutely a last resort, just as it was in '99. This is not where we want to be. As things stand, we will be back out on strike again next Tuesday. We hope we won't be, but the government has to come up with a real plan for nurses.'