Negotiations between nursing unions and the Government have moved to the Workplace Relations Commission in a bid to conclude a new contract of employment as part of measures to address staff shortages in the profession.

SIPTU has confirmed that unions are meeting the HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform this afternoon at the WRC in a bid to break the deadlock between the two sides.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation described the talks as being at a "critical" phase.

In an update to members, it confirmed that the contract negotiations have moved to the WRC this afternoon.

The INMO said this followed intensive engagement with the employer side, during which the union had made progress in removing the "most objectionable" elements from the much-publicised first draft of the employer's proposed contract.

It told members that the Executive Council will only recommend in favour of the deal if the contract negotiations produce an acceptable outcome for members.

In a Labour Court ruling issued last month to stave off further strike action, the Court recommended the introduction of a new higher paid grade of Enhanced Nurse Practitioner which could be accessed after four years of service.

It also advocated the extension of allowances to a broader cohort of the nursing and midwifery profession.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform - which oversees public service pay - has calculated the cost of the new nurses deal at up to €50 million extra by the end of 2020, with €10-15m this year, and €30-35m next year.

However, the Department has repeatedly stressed that those figures are conditional on significant - as yet unenumerated - savings from proposed productivity measures in the new contract.

Nursing unions rejected initial management proposals that would have provided for greater flexibility on the length of shifts, and redeployment within 45km without compensation.

Progress will need to be made soon if unions are to meet their balloting deadlines - with the INMO ballot due to commence on Monday, and to conclude on 25 March.

Speaking on his way to the WRC, SIPTU Health Division Organiser Paul Bell said it would be impossible for his union to recommend the current draft contract provisions which would have a significant impact on the terms and conditions of members.

Some sources have queried whether there was any point in holding the ballot if members had not been briefed on the content of the contract - particularly in relation to productivity demands.

Asked about progress in the contract negotiations, a Department spokesperson said they had no comment at this time.