Last week the unions representing public hospital nurses were busy meeting to discuss the issue of staff shortages, after which they demanded that the health ministry proceeded with the hiring of another 170 nurses. The unions had given a deadline for the ministry to come up with a solution otherwise they would “take a series of measures to compel the health ministry to address the staffing issues seriously”.

Public hospitals, it would seem, are always short-staffed, according to the unions. In an announcement last week, Pasydy spoke of “significant staffing shortages caused by retirements, transfers and a large number of staff on maternity leave and long-term sick leave.” And inevitably the only answer to this is to hire even more nurses. It never crosses union bosses’ minds that these shortages could be tackled through more efficient use of the existing nurses and the ending of the ending of the restrictive union practices.

The spokesman of Okypy, Charalambos Charilaou, pointed out that the public hospitals employed a total 3,500 nurses. This was three times as many as nurses working in private hospitals which still accounted for 50 per cent of hospital beds. In short, private hospitals, because they had much more flexible working conditions could service the same number of beds with a third of the nurses. Even taking into account the A&E departments, which all public hospitals have, the disparity in staffing levels is still unjustified.

Rather than hiring more nurses, the health ministry and Okypy should be looking at how to make better use of hospital staff. The civil service office hours must be phased out and replaced by a shift system; regulations about the number of nurses needed in each clinic and department must be amended, with the aim, ultimately, of reducing the nurses per bed in public hospitals. Okypy should also look at the issue of nurses on long term-sick leave, which even the union acknowledged as a problem. Are nurses going on long-term sick leave because they are on good terms with doctors?

A couple of months ago, the House finance committee heard that some 250 nurses were seconded to other parts of the public sector by Okypy and not performing nursing duties. It was unclear whether this was a similar situation with that of public education in which a few hundred teachers are seconded to the education ministry and do not do any teaching. If this is the case, the seconded nurses should return to the hospitals and the staffing shortage would cease to exist.

There are plenty of ways to overcome the alleged shortages, without hiring more nurses. And it is ironic that the unions, which create shortages with their restrictive practices, then insist that the only solution is to hire more people. It is not, and the health minister has a responsibility to make this clear.