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Medical scientists to suspend strike action tomorrow and enter talks in Labour Court

The MLSA, Department of Health and HSE are all set to engage in talks in the Labour Court tomorrow.

Image: Rónán Duffy/The Journal

Updated May 24th 2022, 6:48 PM

MEDICAL SCIENTISTS WILL suspend their strike action tomorrow, with the union set to enter exploratory talks in the Labour Court alongside the Department of Health and HSE.

The Labour Court has intervened in the ongoing dispute, with the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) and the HSE/Department of Health accepting the invitation to engage in talks.

Following the announcement, the MLSA has issued a notice to its 2,100 members to suspend the strike action planned for tomorrow and to return to work as normal in all hospital laboratories. 

In a statement, MLAS General Secretary Terry Casey said that the union will enter the talks in good faith and with commitments to resolve the recruitment and retention issues within the sector.

“The MLSA’s Executive Committee met this afternoon and has agreed to accept the Labour Court’s invitation. We will remain focused on what is required to achieve a sustainable work structure for Medical Scientists, patients and the Irish health service,” said Casey.

The HSE has said that hospitals will work to resume appointments and medical procedures tomorrow but that there will be some cancellations of inpatient, day surgery and outpatient appointments.

A spokesperson for the HSE added that routine GP testing and other testing services for patients that are already in hospital will resume tomorrow.

“The HSE would like to acknowledge the ongoing cooperation of our staff and patients at this time,” said the spokesperson.

Earlier today, medical scientists said that they made every effort to avoid today’s strike action, but felt they had been left with no other option after a 20-year claim for pay parity with colleagues who do the same work. 

The MLSA has said no approach has been made by the HSE or Department of Health since last week’s strike day, which resulted in the cancellation of thousands of procedures and appointments.

Picket line

Speaking to The Journal at the picket outside St James’ Hospital in Dublin this morning, MLSA industrial relations officer Bronagh O’Leary said the union believes the HSE has “room to manoeuvre” despite public pay agreements. 

“We’ve been trying to be very reasonable in that process, but this is a 20-year claim,” she said. 

The dispute centres on a decades-long demand for pay parity with colleagues in laboratories who are doing the same work. The union has said medical scientists are paid on average 8% less than colleagues in hospital laboratories who are doing the same work. Medical laboratory aides, who report to medical scientists, also start on a higher salary.

O’Leary said the issue goes back to the 50s and 60s when biochemists had a college degree, while medical scientists – then referred to as lab technicians – trained on the job.

“That’s been dead for a long, long time. I went to college, I’m a graduate of the 80s, I have a degree, I have a masters,” she said.

70% of our of our scientists have masters degrees, and they are state registered with Coru [the health and social care regulator] and they’ve done a clinical placement in all the disciplines of the laboratory and they are best served to to do this work. Meanwhile, they work alongside the clinical biochemists who do the same work, but get 8% more because somebody in the 50s had a degree from Trinity.

A 2001 expert report recommended pay parity for medical scientists. This was briefly implemented, but was lost within months in the first public service benchmarking process in June 2002, which evaluated the pay and jobs of public service roles. 

Simon Hogan, who works in the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, said workers had been promised that pay parity would be restored but “it just never happened”. 

“We feel like we’re being ignored because the nature of our job is patient-orientated, there’s more of a moral obligation to work away,” he said.

Other issues that form part of the dispute include access to career progression opportunities and training as well as an expansion of the role leading to an increased workload.

Hospital disruption

Thousands of appointments and procedures have again been cancelled today as medical scientists strike.

The action involves the withdrawal of routine laboratory services from 8am to 8pm on both days, affecting routine hospital and GP services across the country.

Tony Canavan, CEO of the Saolta Hospital Group, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that at least 800 elective procedures will be cancelled in that hospital group alone.

A number of derogation have been agreed with medical scientists and this will ensure Emergency Department tests are still processed. Chemotherapy services will also continue on both days. 

However routine testing of inpatients will not take place. 

“We have over 2,000 patients in hospital beds today,” he said.

“There’ll be no routine testing on them. We rely on those tests to tell us if a patient is deteriorating and in the absence of that testing there is the risk that a patient will deterioration we won’t be able to respond to that quickly enough.”

If no progress is made a further three days of action are planned for next week on 31 May, 1 June and 2 June. In a ballot of MLSA members last November 98% voted in favour of taking the action.

The strike was raised with Taoiseach Micheál Martin during Leaders’ Questions today, where he paid tribute to the medical scientists, stating they were “instrumental” and “crucial” to the Government’s response to Covid-19. 

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Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said that the workers felt that no one had listened to them for the past 20 years that they have been raising issues. 

The Taoiseach encouraged all parties to work towards getting the dispute resolved in the Work Relations Commission (WRC) or the Labour Court, stating those are the arenas that these issues should be resolved.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said the country cannot countenance another three days of strike action next week, stating that patient safety is being put at risk. 

Thousands of appointments have been cancelled, she said. 

Medical scientists are the “hidden heroes” of the health service, she added. 

The Taoiseach acknowledged the disruption the strike was having on the health service, stating that no one wanted to see it, including the workers on strike. 

- With reporting from Rónán Duffy from the picket outside St James’ Hospital and Tadgh McNally

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