Today [Thursday] sees the third day of strike action in the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) campaign for pay parity with other graduate health professionals. The Cavan branch of the INMO is picketing on the pavement outside Cavan General Hospital as part of the 24-hour nurses' strike.
The strikes affect all but “emergency and life preserving cover” at Cavan General Hospital. The nursing unions have pledged to maintain emergency cover during the strikes, however the rescheduling of cancellations will impact on the local waiting lists.
This is week two of the strike action and nurses and midwives are taking to the pickets again next week, from Tuesday to Thursday, February 19 and 21. The INMO is organising a national rally this Saturday, calling for safe staffing levels in the health service through increased pay, to make the profession more attractive.
The nursing unions say inadequate pay is impairing recruitment and retention of staff and they are seeking 12% pay rise to bring them into line with therapy grades like physiotherapists. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform say the €300m estimated cost of the nurses' claim would trigger knock-on claims across the public service, as happened when a €50m award to Gardaí in 2016 led to an additional €120m in payments to other public servants.
A joint statement by the Ministers for Health and Finance and Public Expenditure & Reform on the nursing dispute stated they were “willing to engage in talks on the range of workplace related issues other than pay to try to resolve the dispute”.
Karen Eccles is a member of the INMO Executive Council. A staff nurse in Cavan General Hospital, Karen trained as an RGN in the UK and worked in gynaecology before transferring to theatre.
“The HSE cannot recruit and retain nurses on their current wages,” Ms Eccles explained of the core issue. “They are leaving the service and this is leaving wards under staff. This is making it impossible to expand the health service capacity. For every four nursing vacancies, there is only one nurse applying.”
The INMO Executive Council member stressed the members are looking for pay equality and restoration. “We are not out on the picket lines for only us,” she said.
“Wards are under staffed and unsafe. If we provide additional staff we will provide better patient outcomes. There are 350 deaths annually attributed to trolley waits,” contended Ms Eccles.
Referring to the government's intransigence on the matter of pay, the union rep points to HSE inefficiency: “There were 100,000 patients on trolleys in 2018. There were 7,000 procedures cancelled because of understaffing. We have 1,500 fewer staff nurses in Ireland today compared with a decade ago. We are spending up to nearly €100M a year on agency staff. Private agency companies are paying nurses 20% to 40% more than they will get in a HSE hospital. How will we compete with that?”
The Celt's Facebook page suggests that public support for the nurses is high. Local businesses also backed them by supplying food and beverages to the striking workers last week.
That support also came from political quarters. Aontú Councillor, Sarah O’Reilly, met with nurses and midwives at Cavan General Hospital last week: “This is the largest strike in the health service’s history and the government are totally evading responsibility. There is a serious recruitment and retention crisis that Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris are just turning a blind eye to. But things are just getting worse and huge money is being spent on expensive agency nurses."
Labour Party local election candidate in Cavan-Belturbet Liam van der Spek said he is backing the INMO strike: “No worker takes going on strike lightly and the decision by INMO members to go on strike is obviously not an easy one to make. Nurses have arguably one of the most challenging jobs in our health sector and with the numbers of staff continuing to decrease due to pay and conditions it is no surprise that they feel they have to go one strike,” Mr van der Spek said.
The remaining scheduled strikes will take place on February 12, 13, 14, 19 and 21.
Ms Eccles said nurses appreciate the level of public support they have received to date and called on Cavan people continue that support by attending an INMO National Rally taking place on Saturday [February 9] at Dublin's Garden Of Remembrance: “We would loved to see people come along and support us to ensure that we future proof the Irish health service,” she concluded.
The RCSI group were unable to furnish The Anglo-Celt with details of how many patients had been affected by cancellations at Cavan General Hospital by the time the paper went to press.