The Health Service Executive has accused the Fórsa trade union of undermining strategies to tackle the Covid-19 virus and potentially putting patients at risk by refusing to cooperate with certain technology in a row over staffing.

The dispute centres on union concerns about the HSE's use of agency personnel and contractors in the HSE Office of the Chief Information Officer (OoCIO) to deliver ICT services, rather than using direct staff employees already on recruitment panels.

While Fórsa members had voted for industrial action, they agreed to defer it on the basis of a HSE commitment not to introduce any new initiatives without consultation ahead of talks at the Workplace Relations Commission.

However, all WRC sessions were then suspended due to the Covid-19 emergency.

Fórsa alleges that the HSE has breached its commitment by proceeding with certain initiatives with inadequate consultation, and complains of "insufficient" progress in staffing people on pre-existing panels.

In a memo to members in the OoCIO last Wednesday, Fórsa Assistant General Secretary Ryan McKinney said the union was reinstating its previous instruction not to cooperate with a number of initiatives and tasks until a meeting could take place at the WRC.

Among the extensive list of services impacted are the Microsoft Covid-19 tracker, financial management systems, the Service Desk self-service facility, Microsoft Teams, video-conferencing, the issuing of mobile phones, laptops and other devices, orientation of external contractors, consultants or agency personnel.

Many of these technologies are required to permit staff to work from home, hold meetings, and to facilitate Covid-19 testing and contact tracing.

Fórsa also instructs members "...under no circumstances are they to take direct/instruction or management from external non-HSE employees such as agency workers and/or contractors".

In a response to Fórsa last Thursday, HSE Chief Operating Officer Michael Redmond described the union move as "quite shocking" - particularly at a time when the health service was at the centre of a global pandemic which had had unprecedented fatalities across the world. 

Mr Redmond told Fórsa the union directive flies in the face of the direction of the country with respect to Covid-19, as it "...basically applies the 'brakes' to technology initiatives which are at the core of the Covid-19, which effectively ensures the fight will stall and, potentially fail. It staggers me that Fórsa would consider this action at this time".

"Covid management activity will be severely impaired, particularly the urgent requirements to address gaps in testing, tracking, tracing.

"This directly impacts the HSE's ability to manage the pandemic and will impact on the health of Ireland's citizens with an onward impact on HSE staff. We should not underestimate the seriousness of the situation," said Mr Redmond.

He told the union achieving what had been achieved had not been easy, involving "long hours, agile development, quick decision making and the implementation of new critical solutions (technology and clinical) with no time for widespread consultation or delay".

Mr Redmond stated: "It must be noted that these initiatives were stood up and decided, in many cases overnight, in reaction to exigent circumstances with the clear objective to protect people's health and save lives.

"Detailed engagement prior to each was not practical nor achievable as it transpired, and no project was adversely impacted such that it needed escalation to our agreed process."

He outlined the impact that the Fórsa non-cooperation directive will have on the health service, including enabling staff to work from home, remote clinics, video consultations, and the use of private hospitals.

He also highlighted the potential risk to urgent patient care - both Covid and non-Covid - at a particularly challenging time, adding that the industrial action is in breach of the Public Service Stability Agreement.

Mr Redmond also defended the HSE's record on recruiting staff from panels.

He reminded the union that the HSE had agreed to attend the WRC in April but that those talks had been adjourned due to Covid restrictions.

 A spokesperson for Fórsa said the two sides are expected to engage remotely tomorrow under the auspices of the WRC.

This evening, the HSE said that as both parties are attending the WRC tomorrow, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.