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The number of staff in the UL Hospitals' Group self-isolating has dropped tlast week as elective surgery resumed in Ennis Hospital and University Hospital Limerick.

Nurses ballot for industrial action in UHL

ENGAGING in industrial action at the region’s main emergency care facility is “ill-advised” and a step too far, a local doctor has warned.

INMO members at UHL commenced a ballot for industrial action on Wednesday over the alleged refusal of hospital management to attend talks at the Workplace Relations Commission.

The INMO represents over 1,000 nurses on site who are frustrated at the approach to date by management to resolving the persistent high nurse vacancy rates and other related issues.

Among nurses’ concerns are the risks to patients, overcrowding in a COVID-19 environment and excessive workloads arising due to unfilled funded nursing posts in wards, emergency department and theatres.

Dr Michael Harty has called on Health Minister Stephen Donnelly to immediately intervene to prevent any threatened withdrawal of labour at University Hospital Limerick (UHL).

“Minister Donnelly needs to take the understaffing issue very seriously. He was very strong on this issue when he was opposition spokesman on health.

“I can see the point the INMO are making but to threaten industrial action is a step too far. There has to be a better solution to solving this problem. The only way to solve this problem is for all interested parties to sit down together and come up with a solution.”

Dr Harty said it has been difficult to recruit nurses at the hospital due to historic understaffing and overcrowding, which has been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic as capacity has to be reduced in line with new health guidelines.
The Kilmihil-based GP stressed nurses and medical staff have been the subject of great admiration for the sacrifices they have made during the pandemic.

Mary Fogarty INMO Assistant Director of Industrial Relations said it is imperative that these vacancies are filled prior to the opening of 96 much needed additional beds on site.

However, many of the wards also have historical low staffing levels and need additional nurses to cope with the demands of the COVID-19 environment.

“Nurses at UHL are exhausted after a very tough winter with record overcrowding levels, followed by a pandemic. They are telling us the vacancy rate is as high as 17-20% in the emergency department and 30% on some wards, making it impossible to maintain patient and staff safety and cope with the COVID environment.”

The UL Hospitals’ Group acknowledged nurses and midwives, and all staff across the group, have provided exceptional service throughout the Covid-19 pandemic in keeping patients, their colleagues and wider community safe.

The group confirmed it has continued to recruit nurses and midwives throughout the pandemic to meet the additional demands of Covid-19 while also planning to recruit the additional staff needed as we increase bed capacity.

Staff turnover and resultant vacancies are a feature of large organisations. The adjusted turnover rate for 2018 for  the group was, at 6.3%, the third lowest of the seven hospital groups.

The group actively endeavour to fill deficits as part of an ongoing recruitment process. Underpinning this is the necessity to comply with the HSE Pay and Numbers Strategy, with an agreed staffing ceiling.

“Vacancies among nursing and midwives, our largest single group of staff, are dynamic and stood at 91.7 WTE,  whole-time equivalents at the end of July 2020.

“This was out of a total of 1,728 WTE nurses and midwives employed across the group. This figure does not include temporary vacancies resulting from staff on maternity leave, sick leave etc.

“The group utilise agency and overtime to cover temporary vacancies and we use every opportunity to convert agency workers to permanent staff. During the pandemic, we been grateful for nursing retirees, existing staff on career breaks, unpaid leave and reduced hours who have returned or increased their hours to support essential services.

“Local recruitment campaigns are ongoing and we have been holding weekly interviews for staff nurses and midwives since early March 2020.

“We are offering positions to successful candidates on a weekly basis. All current student nurses and midwives graduating from University of Limerick have been offered permanent contracts. We are also recruiting up to 150 nurses from overseas to commence on a phased basis from December 2020.

“As of the end of July 2020, we had recruited over 130 staff nurses in the year-to-date with an additional 16 staff returning from retirement or career breaks.

“We are committed to consultation and engagement with trade unions on the much needed service developments and additional bed capacity under construction at UHL and at Croom Orthopaedic Hospital.

We remain focused on increasing our staffing levels both to better meet the challenges of Covid-19 and to staff the new wards. A number of consultative forums are in place for the unions to address any issues as they arise. These forums provide for regular engagement between unions and management,” said a group spokesman.

The group confirmed the next such forum meeting is scheduled for Friday, September 4th under the auspices of the WRC Advisory Service.

It remains committed to good industrial relations and continue to be available to meet with the unions. However, the group are disappointed that this ballot for industrial action comes at a time when cases of Covid-19 continue to rise in the MidWest and across the country and the pandemic is far from over.

Dan Danaher

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