The Government has admitted that frontline health workers will have to wait for a pandemic bonus deal across the public service before they get access to additional time off in recognition of their work, says Denis Naughten TD.
“Despite the fact that staff on the frontline within our health service have been put in a unique position during this pandemic, exposing themselves and their families to the risk of Covid infection, they will have to wait for a negotiated bonus deal across the public service,” stated Denis Naughten.
“While there is no doubt that right across the public service, staff have worked in challenging circumstances, the fact remains that no group of public sector workers have put their lives and those of their families at risk to a greater extent than our healthcare workers.”
Denis Naughten outlined to the Dáil yesterday that “many of them have put their hands into their own pockets to do so, paying for alternative accommodation in order that they would not infect a vulnerable person in their home or for additional childcare, if it was available, in order that they could cover for sick colleagues”.
He added: “All workers either in the private or public sector who kept direct person to person services going through the pandemic, and faced a far greater risk of infection, need to be uniquely recognised and they should not have to await a broader pay agreement with the social partners and trade unions
“As I pointed out to the Tánaiste in the Dáil many healthcare staff are physically and mentally exhausted facing into the fourth wave of this virus, dealing with the significant impact of the cyberattack, covering staffing shortages due to Covid infection and long Covid and now facing a backlog in waiting times for appointments and procedures. These staff need time off to recover before they break down completely. Exhausted healthcare staff are a recipe for mistakes, with potentially fatal consequences for patients and very significant financial consequences for the State.”
Responding the Tánaiste pointed out: “It is not just healthcare workers who have put their shoulders to the wheel when it comes to the pandemic.”
He went on to say that “this is not straightforward. It is something we are going to have to work out and negotiate, and it is going to have to be fair and be funded”.
Editor’s Note: See full Dáil debate here:
Thursday, 15 Jul 2021
Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dáil the Government is committed to recognising the sacrifices that public sector workers, in particular front-line healthcare workers, have made. Twelve months ago, I raised with the Taoiseach the need to properly recognise the Trojan work of front-line healthcare workers, in particular all those across our hospital and community health services, from cleaners to consultants. I raised it again with him four months ago.
I have no doubt the Government is committed to providing recognition to staff but it seems, from reading between the lines, that the need to recognise front-line healthcare workers – doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, cleaners, porters and others who place themselves at risk by going to work every day to keep us safe and to care for those who are seriously ill – is now caught up in some relativity battle across the public service. I remind the Tánaiste of what the Taoiseach said last week, namely, that the Government is committed to recognising the sacrifices that public sector workers have made. That, I believe, is the reason the HSE, when it sat down with the health unions last week, stated it had no mandate from the Government to negotiate any bonus payment.
Staff on the front line within our health service have been put in a unique position during this pandemic. Right across the public service, staff have worked in challenging circumstances, but no group of public sector workers have put their lives and those of their families at risk to a greater extent than our healthcare workers. Many of them have put their hands into their own pockets to do so, paying for alternative accommodation in order that they would not infect a vulnerable person in their home or for additional childcare, if it was available, in order that they could cover for sick colleagues. I could go on.
Many of these staff are physically and mentally exhausted, facing into the fourth wave of this virus, dealing with the significant impact of the cyberattack, covering staffing shortages due to Covid infection and long Covid and now facing a backlog in waiting times for appointments and procedures. These staff need time off to recover before they break down completely. As the Tánaiste will be well aware, exhausted healthcare staff are a recipe for mistakes, with potentially fatal consequences for patients and very significant financial consequences for the State. We must now – today – recognise that time off is imperative for their health and give proper recognition to staff on the front line, as the Scottish Government has done by paying every NHS worker a bonus of £500.
I think we will all agree our healthcare workers have done an amazing job throughout the pandemic so far. We can be very proud of our public health service. It is much maligned and has its imperfections, but the pandemic has proved to us that it is much better than many people believed it was, and it really stood up and scaled up in the way we asked it to during the pandemic. While all public servants, including healthcare workers, have received modest pay increases over the course of the pandemic, I do not think they are adequate to recognise the value of the work that was carried out during the pandemic, and I know the Deputy will agree with that too.
The Government wants to recognise the work that was done in a special way. That could be done through a financial bonus or additional leave taken over a number of years, but there are complications and factors we need to take into account. First, the pandemic is not over yet – I guarantee that – and that will become apparent to people over the next couple of weeks. It is not just healthcare workers who have put their shoulders to the wheel when it comes to the pandemic. Many other public servants have too, in the Department of Social Protection, Revenue, my Department – ensuring that businesses got the grants they needed – the private sector in areas such as retail, transport and GPs, for example, as well as the many volunteers I have met during my shifts at the vaccination centres, and they need to be recognised too. It would be a mistake not to look at this in the round, and that is what we need to do.
Even among healthcare workers, there has been significant variation, with some people having to do twice the work they would normally have done, some being redeployed and others actually having reduced workloads because their service was shut down or suspended through no fault of their own. This is not straightforward. It is something we are going to have to work out and negotiate, and it is going to have to be fair and be funded.
As this might be my last opportunity to talk about Covid in the Chamber before the recess, there are a few things I would like to say. First, the pandemic is not over. We are entering a new phase of the pandemic. We have vaccines now, which has weakened the connection between cases and hospitalisations and deaths but has not broken it, and we have a virus that is more infections than ever before. At the start of the pandemic, older people were the most vulnerable. We asked them to stay at home and that saved lives and prevented much illness, but things have changed.
Now unvaccinated people, that is, people who have not been fully vaccinated, are the most vulnerable. Over the course of the next few weeks, people who have not been fully vaccinated are at greater risk than ever before because this virus is so transmissible. Two hundred people have been in ICU in the past two months, 199 of whom had not been fully vaccinated. We are seeing a major surge in cases, almost entirely among younger people and people who have not been fully vaccinated, and we as a Government and a Parliament have a responsibility now to protect those who have not been fully vaccinated. I ask them over the summer, at least until they have been fully vaccinated, to please avoid socialising indoors, please keep their social contacts to a minimum, please avoid non-essential foreign travel and please wear a mask, even outdoors, in crowded scenarios. People who are unvaccinated are more at risk over the next few weeks than at any point during this pandemic. It is not over.
Fifty-two weeks ago, I said to the Taoiseach in Dáil Éireann that if it was not possible to reward healthcare workers with pay increases or some form of a bonus system, the minimum we should offer them is additional paid leave. It would be time to spend with their families, with whom they have sacrificed precious family time, and to recover from the physical and emotional tiredness they are undoubtedly feeling. The Taoiseach was generous in his response, stating that the Government would examine my suggestion and proposal.
In the spirit of the Taoiseach’s response of last July, I sincerely ask the Government not to postpone the much-needed recognition until the end of the pandemic, not to incorporate it into some broader public service pay battle but instead to move on the need for recognition of healthcare workers now.
I agree with the Deputy’s sentiments and will certainly discuss them with the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Health, but I will restate what I said earlier. This pandemic is not over. We are heading into a difficult couple of weeks when the number of cases will soar and those of hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths will increase, sadly. People who are unvaccinated are more at risk in the next few weeks than at any point since this pandemic began, and we need to get that message across to people. Our hospitals and health service are going to be busy again.
I think we can avoid, and we certainly want to avoid, any reintroduction of restrictions. Things are different now because of the vaccines, but still a huge number of people have not been fully vaccinated. Cases are increasing and they are at greater risk than they ever have been since this pandemic began, because of Delta. There is a risk that if they do not take care, they will overwhelm our hospitals and put those healthcare workers under enormous strain again.
The final message I have from this House before we rise for the recess is to say to unvaccinated people that they are at very high risk and should treat this pandemic as seriously as they did at any point since it began.