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OPINION: Suspension of nurses' strike

February 17th, 2019 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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THE third week of a series of day-long strikes by nurses seeking a massive 12% pay increase saw the threat of three consecutive days of disruption focus minds, at last, on the need for talks to take place. Lengthy negotiations at the Labour Court brought about a temporary truce, but there is still quite a gap between the demands of the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation (INMO), along with the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA), and what the government has offered that a final settlement will be very difficult to broker.

The collateral damage has been the tens of thousands of people whose appointments for medical procedures were postponed – a lot of them not for the first time – and so many that it will take ages for them to be rescheduled. The waiting lists were already so long that patients were having to wait years rather than months for treatment with many others at the stage before that of waiting for specialist consultations, having been referred by their doctors.

The INMO rally in Dublin city centre last Saturday afternoon was a useful PR exercise for the nurses, buoyed by a petition supporting them signed by over 68,000 people, but if the disruption had gone on for long more, there was a danger of public sympathy for their cause evaporating. The government may have been counting on this happening, opining with some justification that it cannot afford to go outside the existing public service pay agreement, however neither could it have sat on the fence for too long when sick people were suffering as a result of the strike action.

Chairman of the Irish Patients’ Association, Stephen McMahon, said that he was ‘gravely concerned’ by the number of people affected by the industrial dispute, which he put at up to quarter of a million people, and he told a daily newspaper at the weekend that ‘the numbers are so high that I feel somebody, or a number of people, will fall through the cracks.’

It is tough on patients in need of treatment and on their relatives – some of whom may have booked time off work to look after loved ones after medical procedures, which were then postponed and now need to be rescheduled. Private hospitals were not affected by the nurses’ strike, but both public and private patients in public hospitals were victims of the disruption, as while operations could have gone ahead between the days that nurses were on strike, many were cancelled because the proper aftercare could not be given in the days afterwards when they were due back on the picket lines.

The government initially held the line that they could not afford to give in on the pay element of the nurses’ demands, but partially did so this week, however not enough it seems for grassroots INMO members who have been voicing their dissatisfaction with the package on offer and this may yet lead to its rejection.

With nurses likely now to get a pay rise for all their extra work and responsibilities, one has to ask why should others feel automatically entitled to same? Nurses are amongst the hardest workers in the public service and really do earn their money.

INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha has reiterated the understaffing situation in the public health service, warning that by the time the new National Children’s Hospital is eventually built, there won’t be enough nurses to staff it, if they’re not going to be paid properly, and that there will be an even wider problem as more nurses will also be needed to care for our ever-increasing older population.

However, it is rather disingenuous to claim that newly-qualified nurses are leaving the country in droves purely because of poor pay. The pressurised working conditions in our public hospitals are probably a bigger factor in them going abroad plus of course the prospect of travel and of living and working in sunnier climes; problem is, many of them get used to the lifestyle and are in no hurry to return home to Ireland.

The whole health sector is a mess and it remains to be seen if the suspension of the nurses’ strike will lead to a final settlement. If it does, we could then have a raft of knock-on claims that will further impinge on public services.

Last weekend, a peaceful protest by a vigilante-like mob outside Simon Harris’s home evoked widespread sympathy for the embattled Health Minister. However, he will need a lot more goodwill to fully resolve the nurses’ dispute.

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