By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
MORE than 200 registered and trained clinical nurses staged a “sick out” yesterday amid mounting tensions between Bahamas Nurses Union and the Public Hospitals Authority over long-standing issues.
One point of contention is a 12-hour shift foreign nurses, who are not a part of the union, have been asked to work.
According to a breakdown from the Ministry of Health obtained by The Tribune, 213 nurses – 100 from Princess Margaret Hospital, Sandilands and Rand Memorial Hospital – and 113 from clinics in New Providence and those in the Family Islands – phoned in to report illnesses preventing them from coming to work.
As a result, there were several instances where procedures scheduled months in advance had to be either cancelled or postponed and patient care was interrupted, Health Minister Dr Duane Sands said. Patients were also prematurely discharged and others who travelled to the capital for procedures had to be turned away.
It is unclear how long the nurses will continue this action.
Asked whether there would be consequences for the nurses, Dr Sands said that line of questioning would not do any good to the challenges now before the government.
BNU President Amancha Williams declined comment when she was contacted.
However, Dr Sands said this was obvious industrial action. He also expressed some degree of confusion regarding this issue telling The Tribune many of the concerns dated back 10 years. He said since last week, the government and PHA had been attempting to facilitate a meeting with the union without success. He said any meeting to be held now would be up to the discretion of BNU.
When he spoke to the matter early yesterday, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis expressed optimism the issues would be resolved amicably and “immediately.” He was asked about the situation on the sidelines of his birthday celebration with students at the Gambier Primary School.
He said: “I spoke with the nurses’ union president this morning just before I came here and they had some issues that have not been resolved including scheduling and I assured her. I spoke to my minister and the scheduling should be placed on hold and the whole issue of the ministry, the personnel and the nurses’ union should now meet so we can come to an amicable resolution. We had a very good conversation and I think the nurses would be back (to work) tomorrow (Tuesday).
“As you know nurses play a pivotal role, in fact one of the most important roles in the healthcare sector. I always remind people that when I practised medicine a long time ago, the nurses went on industrial unrest and the hospital was then ran by physicians because the nurses withdrew their services.”
The prime minister continued: “It was then that all of us doctors appreciated how important the nurses are to healthcare. It was after 48 hours of us working nonstop we could not function any longer and we had to inform the government that they must get the nurses back to work because we can no longer carry the healthcare system. So the nurses are very, very important and I think the entire Bahamas must understand that and we will treat them accordingly.”
Dr Sands said despite the sick out, the government was still committed to resolving the issues.
“Some services had to be dramatically curtailed,” Dr Sands said. “But I would have walked around the hospital and I was quite pleased to see that a number of staff were there and patients were being seen.
“At the end of the day it is obvious this it is an industrial action.
“There are people that have had their procedures postponed or cancelled and it’s very unfortunate given the fact that we have said we will address the issues, many of which have been outstanding for 10 years.
“We remain committed to resolving all of the long-standing issues separate and apart, but that can only be done within the reality of life in the Bahamas.
“We have offered ourselves for negotiation since last week and the previous week so it really is a matter of when they are prepared to come to the table,” Dr Sands said when he was asked when all parties would come to the table to negotiate.
“I spoke to the union president today and again this is an unfortunate development and again we have to put the interest of the public first,” he also said.
Early last month, Ms Williams said the union still intended to hold a strike vote despite filing a formal trade dispute.
At the time, she said: “We are still going to go ahead and do what we have to do.”
It came the day after Labour Director Robert Farquharson said he was hopeful all grievances on the table could be amicably resolved.
Ms Williams said the union had no faith in the process.
The union threatened industrial action over a dispute with PHA concerning expatriate nurses on contract being asked to work 12-hour shifts.
Ms Williams previously said while that matter specifically impacts expatriate nurses, it still concerns those covered by the union.
There are 1,500 nurses in the public health sector.