Unfortunately, it looks like the nationwide 24-hour nurses' strike is about to go ahead tomorrow. It is the first time since 1999 that the country's nurses and midwives are going on strike across the health service. It will cause disruption to many patients because of the cancellation of appointments and the cancellation of elective outpatient surgery and it will have an impact generally on the health service.
Nurses and midwives in the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, and the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, have been seeking engagement with the State for some time. They have given plenty of notice. There is no doubt that the nursing profession is under pressure. I refer to nurses working in acute wards, in intensive care, in theatres and in accident and emergency departments. They are under enormous pressure and morale is low. There is a significant human resource issue and without question pay and conditions are central to the low level of morale, in addition to the impact hospital overcrowding has had over a consistent period on the working conditions and the pressure nurses are under.
It is interesting that agency nurses, for example, cost the health service €1.4 million a week. That tells its own story as to what is going on in terms of shortages. The recruitment and retention of nurses is central to the dispute. There are alternative views on the matter. The Public Service Pay Commission has said there is not a retention or recruitment issue but I have doubts about that. It is important to put down a marker in that we need to have more data on how many graduates are leaving student nursing colleges every year to go overseas. The numbers are significant. We must also examine how many nurses we are recruiting from overseas.
The system is out of kilter by any measure. Entire cohorts of students are moving to the UK, Canada, Australia and other countries. We then have to recruit huge numbers from overseas at significantly greater cost. I refer to the cost of nurses with third-level qualifications and, likewise, the cost of orientation and ensuring that people who come from overseas are properly equipped, sufficiently capable and so on. There are huge costs in that.
I read a very good article in the Evening Echo last week in which Ms Naomi O'Donovan, a midwife at Cork University Maternity Hospital, and Ms Margaret Frahill, a nurse manager in Mercy University Hospital, outlined their concerns regarding patients missing out on certain care. Their concerns are the result of the pressures involved.
The Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, held a hearing. The matter may now go to a full hearing of the Labour Court. The Minister seems to have indicated that he is anxious for the industrial relations machinery of the State to be deployed to help resolve this dispute. It has taken some time to engage that machinery. If the matter is referred to a full hearing of the Labour Court, will the Government abide by the outcome, just as it did in the Garda pay dispute some years ago?