Public health doctors belonging to the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) are to hold three days of strike action in January in an escalation of their campaign to be regraded in line with hospital consultants.

The doctors who oversee public health operations including infectious diseases, vaccinations and contact tracing, will hold a one-day stoppage on 14 January, and a further two-day strike on 21 and 22 January.

They reserve the right to escalate their stoppages if the dispute is not resolved by then.

In a statement, the Department of Health expressed disappointment at the decision.

"The creation of consultant level roles in Public Health Medicine is a priority for the Minister [for Health] as public health specialists have waited for many years for consultant status," it said.

The Department added that a detailed framework for a future public health model, to include consultant level roles, has now been finalised.

Last Friday, the IMO announced that the 60 public health specialists had backed industrial action by a margin of 94%.

They are currently involved in key anti-Covid activities including overseeing "complex" contact tracing in settings like nursing homes and schools. 

However, because they are not ranked at consultant grade, they earn up to 48% less than their hospital consultant colleagues - and have been campaigning to close that gap for around 20 years.

The public health specialists can currently earn up to €111,822 but their hospital consultant counterparts with a "type-A" public-only contract can take home between €141,026 and €195,653.

Consultants with other contracts permitting an element of private practice could take home significantly more.

The IMO Public Health Committee insists the dispute was not merely a pay claim, but about recognising the importance of consultants leading multidisciplinary teams in a fully resourced public health service.

It notes that currently, regardless of qualifications, no public health specialist is recognised as a consultant "...despite meeting the same criteria as all other consultants appointed in the health service".

The Chair of the IMO Public Health Committee Dr Ina Kelly accused the Government of attempting to "confuse the issue" over the weekend.

"We want to be clear we have had no meaningful engagement with the Department of Health in the last five months, no business plan has been discussed with us, no new contract has been agreed. In fact, we are in a worse situation today than we were a year ago," she said.

She said that in previous 2019 talks, it had been agreed between the Department and the IMO that the contract to be offered would be the current "public-only" consultant contract.

She said that talk of Sláintecare contracts was "disingenuous in the extreme, considering such contracts do not exist and need to be agreed with the wider consultant body".

She noted that the public health specialists had gone "above and beyond" in taking on additional duties and onerous hours to manage the pandemic - and urged the Government to honour previous commitments and implement the recommendations of a Crowe Horwath report on the issue.

Comment has been sought from the Department of Health and the HSE.