The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has had no contact from the Department of Health in relation to a planned public health doctors’ strike in January.
The country’s 91 specialists of public health medicine are taking strike action this month as part of their 17-year battle for consultant status and contracts.
The IMO’s public health committee served notice of industrial action on the HSE and the Department of Health in November, announcing that strike action will commence on January 14, followed by a two-day strike on January 21 and 22.
Since then, it is understood that nobody from the Department of Health has contacted the IMO specifically to try and resolve matters and to avert the strike.
There has, however, been communication between the IMO and the HSE about what cover and other contingencies will be provided on strike days.
Dr Ina Kelly, chair of the Public Health Committee of the IMO, said: ‘As doctors, who have committed our careers to public health in Ireland, we are frustrated and disappointed at the lack of progress by the department and the fact that they have effectively forced us into this position.’
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘The minister and the department are fully committed to resolving this dispute and avoiding disruption to our vital public health services in January.
‘The department is fully committed to substantive engagement with the public health doctors and their representative body, with the objective of resolving core issues.
‘The HSE, as the employer, is engaging directly with the IMO at present, with the focus on agreeing arrangements around the provision of contingency cover during the strike days.’
Consultant status and contracts were part of a pay and productivity agreement in 2019, which was due to be fully implemented by July 2020.
Much of the increased productivity aspect of the agreement was fast-tracked due to the Covid-19 crisis, but the extra pay and new contracts have not materialised.
In another sign of the crisis sweeping through the health system in Ireland, new annual figures from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) show that at least 53,325 patients went without beds in Irish hospitals in 2020.
Over 30,000 of those were recorded since the Covid-19 virus arrived in Ireland.
Admitted patients waited on trolleys and chairs, often in corridors. Such overcrowding poses an infection control risk which the union branded ‘unacceptable’.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the HSE announced that they would adopt a zero-tolerance approach to trolleys. Monthly figures dropped to as low as 497 (April 2020), but have been steadily increasing throughout the year to 4,353 (December).
The annual figures were roughly half what they were in 2019 (the highest year on record), yet many hospitals had more patients on trolleys last year than previous years.
The hospitals with the highest overall figures included:
- University Hospital Limerick: 9,843 (higher than 2017)
- Cork University Hospital: 6,503 (higher than 2016)
- Midlands Regional Hospital, Mullingar: 2,768 (higher than 2019);
- Sligo University Hospital: 2,530 (higher than 2017);
- Mater University Hospital: 2,368.
INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, said: ‘Hospital overcrowding is unacceptable at the best of times, but it is doubly so when dealing with a contagious virus.
‘At the beginning of the pandemic, the focus was on eliminating overcrowding. We now need immediate interventions to ensure our hospitals can cope with the volume of patients safely.
‘Over 13,000 healthcare workers have been infected with Covid. Nearly 4,000 of them nurses. These are the staff we need to roll out the vaccine and to provide care.
‘They cannot be safe in overcrowded, infectious environments.
‘We are now effectively running two health services, catering for Covid and non-Covid cases.
‘We wrote to the HSE yesterday seeking urgent action. They must bring private hospital capacity onstream and postpone electives.’
Meanwhile, Gate Gourmet staff at Dublin Airport ballotted last week on a proposal by the huge Swiss airline services group to change their terms and conditions of employment.
Staff at the catering operation have expressed anger that the company has already implemented the benefit cuts in the proposal, which Gate Gourmet said were designed ‘to implement drastic efficiencies and cost reductions in order to ensure the immediate and future sustainability’ of its Dublin Airport operation.
In the proposal document, Gate Gourmet, which provides catering and cleaning to many airlines at the airport, said it was ‘already experiencing a pre Covid-19 downturn in business due to competitor pricing’ which meant ‘redundancies cannot be avoided’.
It said it had planned to let go almost three-quarters of its 123-person workforce – but that acceptance of work practice changes, a shorter working week, and the government’s wage subsidy scheme would mean it could cut redundancies to 39.
Trade union SIPTU told the staff that it had agreed the temporary removal of some benefits until Gate Gourmet returned to 80% of its pre-Covid turnover, but that the ‘permanent removal of long-held benefits … were seen by SIPTU and the members as excessive and unacceptable’.
However, a group of Dublin-based staff members have separately written to the trade union to say they had not given the union the go-ahead to agree any such temporary change to their employment benefits.
Their letter said that at the time the temporary arrangement had been agreed between the company and the union, the staff themselves had not seen the proposed draft agreement.
The letter from the workers argued that a change from a weekly to a monthly pay run was not the core contentious issue, as had been stated by the trade union.
‘This is simply not correct. The totality of these proposals are unacceptable and contentious, particularly as the company has already implemented most of these changes since September 2020,’ said the letter.
‘We believe it is neither appropriate nor fair to conduct a ballot on December 22, 2020 only.
‘In order for us to be given a fair and reasonable opportunity to vote, the ballot should be held over a number of days to facilitate colleagues who are shift workers. In addition, those who may be on any form of leave should be provided with a postal ballot.’
The staff have since written to the company directly to say that they had not agreed to the revision in their terms and conditions, and that no agreement – temporary or otherwise – had been reached.
The letter from the staff to the company said that, contrary to what had been stated in an earlier email to them from the company, SIPTU had not recommended acceptance of the proposed restructuring.