Thousands of patients are being impacted as we speak because of the nurses strike. In passing, I welcome the care that is continuing to be given to cancer patients and to patients on dialysis, and that an agreement was reached with the nursing organisation. However, 25,000 appointments have been cancelled and there is a lot of anxiety out there among patients, people with chronic illness and people awaiting elective surgery in regard to what will happen in the coming weeks.
As the Taoiseach knows, this strike will be followed by more intensive action, with consecutive days of strike action throughout February. It is my view there has been no proactive engagement from Government in regard to this dispute with the nursing representatives. The belated, 11th hour activity that we witnessed in the last number of days was far too little and far too late. The sense from officialdom was, "We are going to let this strike happen today and then see what happens after that." I do not think any genuine attempt was made to engage with a view to preventing today's strike.
The Government, in my view, is also in denial about the recruitment and retention issues within the health service, specifically in nursing. Agency nursing is costing €1.4 million a week. We are haemorrhaging nurses from our colleges to the United Kingdom and further afield. A young student was on Today with Sean O'Rourke this morning saying he will be offered six months accommodation in London and that he has three job offers, which is fairly typical. The UK hospitals come over to all of our college campuses on a regular basis. There will always be toing and froing, and I get that, but the imbalance today is extraordinary. We are talking about 80% to 90% of final year students not staying in the Irish system and going overseas - those are the estimates being made, so it is a serious issue. Meanwhile, we are spending hundreds of thousands on trying to recruit from non-EU countries to fill the gaps in our service. There is an imbalance that reveals something is unattractive to those who are qualifying as nurses which means they do not stay in Ireland. I have no doubt about this. Morale is low. Nurses are working in a very high-pressure environment and they are very worried about the quality of the care they are giving because of the shortage of staff, high acuity levels and all of that.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach said he wants to resolve this, that these disputes do ultimately get resolved and that Government is part of the industrial relations machinery. Can he indicate what initiative he plans to take to get this issue resolved and to prevent the anxiety many patients undoubtedly feel? Does he accept there is an excessive level of haemorrhaging of nurses from our colleges to overseas locations and what does the Government intend to do about that?