The Health Service Executive has said there has been "strong interest" in controversial graduate nurses positions.

This is despite the fact that nursing unions have called on graduates to boycott the recruitment scheme.

The plan aims to pay newly qualified nurses 80% of the current starting salary.

They will receive a starting salary of €22,000 compared to around €26,400 for graduates hired up to now.

The scheme opened to applicants yesterday.

Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation General Secretary Liam Doran said the move is attempt by the HSE to introduce what he described as "cheap labour".

Mr Doran said that some new graduates who were already in employment were having those contracts cancelled by the HSE.

The graduates affected will have to re-apply for the new graduate programme for which they will be paid a lower salary.

Director of Human Resources at the HSE Barry O'Brien said the jobs were additional posts to the 35,000 nurses already employed by the HSE and were being funded by replacing overtime and agency staff.