Patients in Cork saw appointments cancelled and services disrupted yesterday as thousands of healthcare support staff went on strike.
The HSE revealed that the strike resulted in more than 2,000 cancellations yesterday, including surgical procedures, scope procedures, and outpatient appointments.
Around 1,000 healthcare workers across Cork took part in a 24-hour strike yesterday and three consecutive days of action are scheduled for next week unless SIPTU and the government can come to an agreement.
The action came as more than 7,000 staff, including healthcare assistants, hospital chefs and other health service support staff, across Ireland seek pay increases of about €21 million.
Thirty-eight hospitals and healthcare facilities were affected by yesterday’s industrial action.
Dr Conor Deasy, consultant at Cork University Hospital, had warned that the strike would cause delays in Emergency Departments across Ireland, as hospitals and other settings rely on a wide range of health support staff.
Almost 40 patients at the Mercy University Hospital saw their appointments cancelled as a result of the action.
In a statement yesterday, the HSE acknowledged that “the situation in all sites is challenging because of the range of essential services affected”.
As well as facing challenges in maintaining essential daily care for inpatients such as nutrition, hydration, transfer of patients, cleaning and infection control, the HSE admitted that there was a “significant number of appointment and procedure cancellations including surgical procedures, scope procedures, and outpatient appointments”.
Patients were contacted by their local hospital or healthcare facility in the event that their scheduled procedure was affected by the dispute.
“We have minimised the impact as best we could by providing cover for emergency areas and we have provided stand-by staff to ensure staff is there should the need arise,” said SIPTU organiser for the Cork region, Sharon Cregan.
“If the situation at the Emergency Department should escalate, we have staff nearby waiting to step in.
“We don’t have the compliments of staff that we would have on a normal day however,” she added.
“On a good day, this hospital is under pressure and the health service is in constant crisis.
“Our members do their best at all times and even now on the picket line, are ensuring that the impact on patients and disruption is as minimal as possible.
“But there is disruption when you take hundreds of staff members out of such a high-pressure environment and we lay that squarely on the government’s doorstep.”
Ms Cregan added that SIPTU members were taken aback by Health Minister Simon Harris’s comments where he suggested it was extraordinary that a union would escalate such action without going to the Labour Court.
“We’re taken aback by the government's betrayal of our members,” said Ms Cregan.
“We signed up to a national agreement and we stuck to our side of the bargain.
“Our members took massive hits in their salaries, they worked short-staffed and under extreme pressure with very limited resources,” she added.
“So for the Minister to say our actions are extraordinary, we’re taken aback.
“We find it extraordinary that the government can sign up to an agreement and then turn their back on it.” The job evaluation was the key to members voting for the national agreement, Ms Cregan explained.
She added that the government are now ignoring the evaluation, agreement and healthcare workers.
“It’s an absolute betrayal and completely dishonourable.
“The government said they would pay us and then completely reneged on that promise.
“It’s unacceptable and our members will certainly not accept it,” she added.
“We can see that in the turnout today, the determination shown and the plans for further action.
“The government may find our actions ‘extraordinary’ but we find it flabbergasting that they do not seem to understand how an agreement works.
“It’s a two-way street.” The strikes were initially scheduled for last Thursday but were deferred to allow for talks at the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
However, talks were unsuccessful and thousands of healthcare workers across Cork and Ireland ceased work for 24 hours yesterday.
Lorraine Collins, healthcare assistant at CUH, explained the issue on the ground.
“The government has reneged on a promise to us and we’ve basically been underpaid since October last year as a result,” she said.
“We just want what is owed to us, what it was decided we deserve.
“It’s very frustrating to be out here on strike today,” she added.
“Our jobs have evolved and they now encompass so much more responsibilities and activity but we’re not being paid in line with that.
“The support staff play a vital role in the health service - many people may not realise that - and we deserve to be paid what we’re owed.
“The government has paid out a lot of money to a lot of top people but they can’t pay us what we’re owed.
“We have more strikes planned for next week but we want the government to step in and talk to us because we’re worried about our patients and the impact this strike and others will have.”
John Ferry left the painting and decorating scene to join the health service five years ago.
He has worked in the catering department at CUH since a department that has struggled to keep up with demand as the hospital around it grew in recent decades.
“The hospital has gotten bigger in the past 10 yeasr, there are new wards and a new cancer unit and people have to be fed,” he explained.
“The A&E is probably one of the busiest in the country as well and they all have to be fed.
“Meanwhile, we have just one kitchen to feed the maternity hospital, the mental health unit and CUH,” he added.
“Our schedule is very hectic and we deserve to be paid in line with that.
“I’ve only been here five years but there are people who’ve been here 20 or 30 years and they’ve seen their wages actually decrease.
“Some other sectors have gotten their pay restored and the hard working people striking here today deserve that too.
“The government are now making excuses so they don’t have to do that and it’s very frustrating.”
Meanwhile, chefs within the health service are not included in the deal that the government has been accused of ignoring.
Susan O’Mullane has been working as a chef at CUH for 15 years and explained that they are struggling for recognition within the sector in line with support staff.
Ms O’Mullane explained the lack of recognition can make it hard to move up the ladder and progress within the health service.
She added that, despite having years of culinary experience and qualifications under their belts, chefs start off on a wage of €22,000 per year.
“It’s not going to take a lot of money to get the chefs to where they should be, around €1.2m which, in the grand scheme, is not a lot,” she said.
“But the alignment is the big thing we’re looking for.” Ms O’Mullane added that it was extremely frustrating to see many parts of the health sector forced out on strike to get what they deserve.
In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, SIPTU revealed that talks between the union and government will take place today at 10.30am.
SIPTU Health Division Organiser, Paul Bell, said the planned three days of strike action due to take place next week will proceed the dispute is not resolved.
Ms Cregan said that while the union is hopeful meaningful engagement will come from the government, there are plans for three consecutive strike days next week.
“We have three potential strike dates next week, the second, third and fourth of July, and we’re preparing for those.
“We’re hoping for some form of meaningful engagement from the government in the meantime.
“We need pay justice,” she added.