By Catherine Finnegan
Despite being nearly two years into the pandemic that has put healthcare workers at huge risk, nurses and midwives continue to be cruelly underpaid and overworked. The latest surge of Covid-19 threatens to overwhelm the health service, but nurses and midwives know all too well that even before the pandemic the country’s hospitals battled with capacity crises every winter.
Decades of neoliberal policies enacted by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail governments have left our health service on its knees, creaking along thanks entirely to the healthcare workers that are expected to provide quality care without the resourcing to do so.
Nurses and midwives have been lauded as some of the heroes of the pandemic, but the work they do needs to be acknowledged with more than empty words of thanks and praise, claps and promises. The ‘McHugh Report’ on the pay for student nurses and midwives is still unpublished and the Department of Health has yet to act on it. A meagre 12.5% raise has been promised for fourth year students completing their internship, but student nurses and midwives on placement in first, second and third year will continue to work for free.
The pressure being faced by these workers is unimaginable for most, especially during a public health crisis where all of society relies on the fact that if you get sick, someone will be there to take care of you. Massive investment is needed to reduce this pressure, not only to increase hospital capacity but to provide a work environment that does not squeeze workers past the point of burnout.
It is said that an additional 150 ICU beds are required to bring Ireland up to European average, this is urgently needed, but it is not a mere matter of capacity as each ICU bed requires a fully trained team including at least six nurses.
Health system overhaul
When student nurses and midwives are so acutely exploited during their training it is no wonder that many look to emigrate following qualification. Healthcare workers provide an invaluable service to society and that needs to be recognised through proper pay and the abolition of unpaid work at all levels. Otherwise there is little hope of being able to retain the nurses required to staff the hospitals that so desperately need them.
Nurses and midwives, professions dominated by women, are often demonised and attacked when they take industrial action such as going on strike, which they are reluctant to do because their work is so essential to so many sick people, which too often allows their treatment at the hands of HSE management and the government to go unchallenged. Industrial action by hospital staff is not just in their interests, but that of patients and society as a whole, and is often just as essential as the care they provide.
The trade union movement as a whole must stand behind healthcare workers and support their demands for better working conditions and pay. It should alsol demand the overhaul of the health system to bring about a one-tier, fully resources public health system capable of meeting society’s needs.