Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has strongly criticised nurses for planning to go on strike in the middle of the week rather than at a weekend.
He said the planned work stoppage by members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) on January 30th would see thousands of patients missing out on planned medical appointments even if the industrial action was called off at the last minute.
He said if the union had scheduled the strike for a weekend it would have had the same political impact on the Government but affected far fewer patients.
The INMO has warned of five further strikes in February if its claims for pay rises to to address recruitment and retention difficulties were not resolved.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association is expected to announce on Thursday details of planned strikes by its members over pay.
The Department of Health and the HSE are to hold talks with the INMO next Tuesday.
It is also likely that the oversight group for the current public service agreement will convene a meeting towards the end of next week to discuss the planned work stoppages by more than 40,000 nurses.
Speaking on a visit to Ethiopia on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said: “We will do everything we can to avoid a strike, but ultimately it is a decision by the unions to go on strike, and I am saddened that the unions have taken a decision to strike on a Wednesday.
“They had the option of striking on a Saturday or Sunday, which would have had the same political impact and the same amount of pressure on the Government to resolve the problem and engage, but it wouldn’t have had such a big impact on patients.
“A strike on a Wednesday means that thousands of operations will be cancelled and thousands of clinic appointments will be cancelled. Many of those people, and I am just thinking of them, will have had a date in their minds for January 30th and might have been waiting months for those appointments, and even if the strike is called off at the last minute it will be too late to reschedule. So I do regret it.”
The Taoiseach said the current public service accord provided for five different pay increases in 2019 - an across-the-board rise for all public servants; an incremental increase for most public servants; a reduction in the pension levy for public servants; a special increase for those earning under €30,000; and a pay rise for those recruited after 2012.
“All of that is costing hundreds of millions of euro. We are happy to find that money in the Budget because we want to pay our public servants better, but there is a limit to what we can afford. The difficulty with doing a special deal for any one aspect of the civil service is that every other group would want the same, and that could run into hundreds of millions of euro - money we don’t have at the moment, which we would have to borrow, and I don’t think it’s prudent to borrow money to fund pay increases. And even if we had that money we might need it for Brexit in ten weeks’ time. We certainly need it for housing.”
Opposition parties expressed varying degrees of backing for nurses in their dispute.
Asked about Fianna Fáil’s position on the dispute, that party’s health spokesman Stephen Donnelly said that the nurses “were asking a reasonable question” and that the Government “has not given a reasonable answer”.
However, the TD - who joined Fianna Fáil having previously been an Independent and later Social Democrats joint leader - stopped short of expressing outright backing for the dispute. “There’s isn’t €300 million to pay the nurses overnight,” he said. “There is a genuine problem with pay and conditions ... I think there is an opportunity to evolve and improve the nursing profession.”
Labour said it “fully supported” the nurses’ decision to go on strike and the party’s health spokesman Alan Kelly said that Ministers should not “rile up” nurses but should sit down with them to address their issues.
Sinn Féin blamed the Government for the dispute and said that the Minister needed to stop “dismissing nurses”.