Unions representing over 50,000 doctors and nurses have warned that the forthcoming negotiations on public sector pay must deliver "special measures" and incentives to address difficulties with staff recruitment and retention in the health services.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the Psychiatric Nurses Association and the Irish Medical Organisation accused the Government of a "head in the sand" approach to the staffing crisis in hospitals and community and mental health services.

They said the issue is affecting the delivery of patient care.

The unions say that there are currently 400 vacant consultant posts, with some hospitals now reliant on doctors who do not have the required specialist registration.

60% of doctors qualifying in 2016 intend to emigrate, while the number of nurses and midwives is 3,200 short of the 2008 tally.

The child and adolescent mental health service in Cherry Orchard in Dublin will operate with half its beds from June due to nurse shortages.

The unions say the crisis now requires special measures to compete with overseas health recruiters.

They say the real test of the forthcoming pay talks is whether they can deliver special measures, including pay rises, to address the perfect storm of a failing health service unable to recruit professionals required to deliver health care.

They also warn that their members, who make up a sixth of the public service workforce, will not tolerate the issue being kicked down the road, in a process that meanders with no outcome.

This afternoon Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe formally invited unions to talks.