'It's now or never' say nurses & midwives
Just under 1,000 members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation went on strike in Sligo last Wednesday in a dispute over the safety of patients and wages.
Hundreds of INMO members in Sligo joined the picket, and they may well do so again over five days in February if the dispute is not resolved.
Martina Harkin Kelly, President of the INMO, who is based in Sligo, explained the purpose of the strike to The Sligo Champion: "The purpose of this is to look at the recruitment and retention crisis in nursing and midwifery.
"The HSE have tried and tested a number of proposals, policies, they've tried strategies over the last 3-4 years. However, recruitment and retention has proved very difficult for the HSE albeit they've tried. The 'Bring Them Home campaign', the rehired retirees, all of that has been tried and tested. The point I'm making is, it doesn't seem to be holding on to the nurses and midwives that we have within the country."
She added that a survey carried out by the INMO showed that the majority of graduates had planned to leave the country for work.
"There's still a huge attrition rate. We commissioned a survey last May and in that 71% of new graduates said that they were going to leave the country. 57% of them had already been approached. These were graduates that would be qualifying in September but they had already been approached by overseas employers and agencies in UK, USA, Australia, Canada. Conditions of work have a huge impact on anybody's potential to be able to carry out their day's work in the way they want.
"Nurses and midwives have and suffer from moral distress where they cannot give the care that they want to give. They're not allowed to give it within their work environment. They basically have to prioritise their care and move on to the next very sick patient."
Despite many accusations, the INMO have insisted that this dispute is not entirely about pay.
"Pay is an element, conditions are huge. Release for continuing professional development is huge. Nurses at the minute are not always released, it depends on their line manager whether or not they are released for educational programmes. Nurses and midwives have put their shoulder to the wheel for the last 11 years.
"It's not about pay. The nurse and the widwife, start on a salary of just below €30,000. After 15 years of nursing, with possibly a degree, a diploma and a masters, they get €45,000. Any money they get above that is worked for. If they work a weekend, they've had to work a weekend to get extra. They work bank holidays, they work Christmas, they work Easter. There's a claw back on holidays over the summer so that there's fairness and equity."
The INMO and its members felt as though they were left with no choice but to strike, as they feel as though the Government is not willing to engage in talks to resolve the current staffing crisis.
The INMO were yet to have any contact with the Government regarding the strike action last Wednesday, but Health Minister Simon Harris did say that financial penalties against nurses will be considered in the coming days and weeks.
"We have exhausted every single mechanism in the industrial relations process, there is no other line. The Labour Court couldn't get any common ground between the different parties. The issue is recruitment and retention, it's not a national problem, it's global.
"Those nurses abroad want to know that they have something to come back to, that the conditions of work are safe and that they will enjoy and give what they want to the profession that they chose."
The severe overcrowding at hospitals throughout the country is putting lives at risk, added the INMO President.
"We run at 100-120% capacity. The death zone is when you tilt above 94% capacity at hospitals. That technically means there are patients at risk because of overcrowding.
"No nurse wants to be on strike. I find it difficult to comprehend that they would let nurses, who have a moral conscience in all of this, and they would let them walk to the footpaths and roads outside the major hospitals and community health organisations."
Martina Harkin Kelly says the INMO are more than willing to sit down and talk, should the Government decide they wish to do so.
"What I would say to Government is that we are always available for talks, there is a willingness there to engage. There has to be middle ground sought in this dispute. That narrative of 'putting the country through this' I put in conjunction with the patronising narrative of 'we respect ye, you're good little girls and boys'. That doesn't pay the bills."
She described conditions at Sligo University Hospital as being like 'a war zone' at times.
"Last year alone in Sligo University Hospital there were 4,174 patients that were on trolleys. That's your Emergency Department. You cannot sleep on a trolley in the ED department. The lights are on, there's continuous bleeping, people are coming in and out, there are infection prevention and control issues and the nurses try and deal with that. It's a war zone at times.
"It's an across the board strike but nurses have given a lot of goodwill, there is emergency cover and essential care services being given by our members. I think it's important that every citizen merits a professional, qualified nurse at the end of the day
"For the Sligo branch there's around 1,000 members, most are out on strike. We've had to put up with the weather conditions but the weather conditions at least we know will go but the conditions inside have remained for the last 11/12 years but now is the time. This is for the nurses of the future."
One nurse told The Sligo Champion: "This strike has happened because of patient safety and conditions, and really it's about the staffing levels. That's the main reason we are here today."
Zana McGowan urged the Government to take heed of the industrial action.
"Our priority is patient safety. We're striking mainly for them and for the future of healthcare in Ireland. At the minute with short staffing levels ad problems with recruitment and retention we can't cope. At times it is (like a war zone), especially in the summer. We work in dialysis which is a specialised area so we need more nurses. We were down four or five nurses some days. It was stressful and stressful for the patients.
"We don't want to be here. We want to be by the bedsides. Hopefully the Government will listen to us because we're crying out for help and they're ignoring us."
Speaking on the picket line, Sinn Féin Councillor Chris MacManus reiterated his support for nurses and midwives as they attempt to get the government to engage with them to solve the recruitment and retention crisis.
Councillor MacManus said: "Nurses and midwives did not want to have to strike today. However, it is obvious that this action by the INMO has massive backing amongst the public. We all support their right to strike for better conditions, for a better health service, for respect, and for better pay.
"The government and their spokespeople fail to understand that if nurses and midwives are outside our hospitals, it means something is very wrong both inside hospitals and in government buildings. Successive Government have had over a decade to address the nursing recruitment and retention crisis. They have completely failed, and the situation has deteriorated.
"It is Fine Gael who are compromising patient care, not our nurses and midwives. Under Fine Gael the health service has been reduced to the point where waiting lists soar because of a lack of resources. Where countless operations are cancelled because of a lack of staff. Where hundreds of patients languish on trolleys daily because of a lack of hospital beds and staff."