“Ten days vacation is not enough, we are underpaid”, and “Long periods of job stress affects personal relationship”.
These were among the several placards that showed up as nurses staged two hours of protest action last Friday morning to express their disgust with government over their working conditions.
The nurses took action against the cash-strapped ruling New National Party (NNP) administration of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell with support from the Public Workers Union (PWU).
The issues of contract workers, vacation leave and pension dues were among some of the concerns raised over the months by the affected nurses as they downed tools for two hours on Friday.
The nurses stood in front of the General Hospital with their placards and kept chanting, “Enough is enough” despite the presence of Health Minister, Nicholas Steele.
According to 1st Vice President of PWU, Rachel Roberts the union met with government on countless occasions to discuss the plight of the healthcare providers but was not seeing any changes within the health system.
Roberts described as “unsatisfactory” a situation in which there is one nurse to 21 patients or two nurses to 40 patients at the island’s main hospital.
She said nurses are overworked and the government needs to saturate the health system with more nurses in order to provide effective health care to patients.
“We are saying give the nurses, give the doctors the respect, give the healthcare system the respect that it deserves and provide the nurses, provide the doctors.
“We have been on the table over and over again (talking with government) , we have not seen any implementation – we are hearing words but we are not seeing action. We have gotten a lot of promises, we cannot live off promises.
Roberts also reiterated the position of PWU that nurses should not be part of the attrition policy introduced by the Mitchell government to cut down on the size of the public service.
She said the issue where nurses leave the system and are not being replaced by the same amount that left should not be applied as nurses play a very important role in the well being of people.
“If we are serious about the health system we are saying the attrition policy should not be applicable to the health care system. Nurses leave in batches, when we have 10/15 nurses leaving at the same time, are you going to be taking up three nurses.
“When you have a ward of 30, you have a ward of 21 patients, who would look after a patient, who would give nursing care? We are saying we need more doctors; we need the doctors to see after the patients.
According to Roberts the ruling NNP administration has been promising months to make more doctors and nurses available in the healthcare system but nothing has happened.
Minister Steele who was seen on the compound of the hospital as the nurses staged their protest action told reporters that government has taken a decision to put in some nurses into the system with effect from November 2.
This did not meet with approval from Roberts who explained the union’s position on the issue.
She said: “Nurses put into the system would be for the nurses who have left and we have a number of nurses leaving. We know that there have been an agreement to employ 150 Established nurses and nurses continue to be on contract – implement the policy. We are calling for implementation, we are calling for delivery, deliver!”.
Minister Steele countered by saying there cannot be a hiring of 120 nurses at the same time by the cash-strapped regime in St. George’s.
He said: “Every two weeks we will be hiring more nurses. We cannot hire 120 nurses all at once, we are hiring 15 to 20 nurses at a time in batches. They are coming and working out their terms of reference and so on…that process has started and that process will continue regardless of today (the protest action)”.
The Minister refuted claims made by Roberts about government not delivering on promises made, stating that at every meeting with the nurses, it was able to deliver on some of the issues raised.
“There have been requests from my part to find out from the nurses … what is the most important physical change that I can make within the hospital environment for them…they wanted an improvement on each of the individual working stations …. so that is what we are working on”, he said.
“The issue is I have been meeting with them and on each meeting I have not been able to deliver (on) all of their requests but every single time that we have met I have been able to produce an improvement, a positive change in the system”, he added.
Minister Steele sought to assure the protesting nurses that he is still committed to delivering on the outstanding promises.
“…I look forward to us meeting again and I guarantee them the next time we meet, if it is today, if it is tomorrow or next week I will be able to notify them of various positive changes and improvements that have been made and will continue to be made,” he said.
The Health Minister announced that government has negotiated with Cuba to bring in four doctors into the system by December.
These doctors, he said are replacements for the four who are currently studying in Cuba.
The main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) of former Finance Minister Nazim Burke has accused the Mitchell government of falling far short of the patient to doctor ratio as stipulated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The NNP when it was in opposition had staged protest action against Congress during its 2008-13 stint in office to highlight the many health problems in the country.