Public health doctors central to the battle against Covid-19 have warned that they will resume their deferred strike action if the Government does not engage meaningfully on their demand for a regrading to hospital consultant status.

The 60 doctors belonging to the Irish Medical Organisation had been due to hold three one-day stoppages today, as well as on 20 and 21 January, in their bid to force an upgrade.

But they deferred the strike action in light of the rapid escalation of coronavirus cases.

That decision is due to be reviewed at the end of this month.

As the public health specialists dealing with areas including infectious diseases are not ranked at hospital consultant grade, they earn up to 48% less than their consultant colleagues - and have been campaigning to close that gap for around 20 years.

The 60 public health specialists can currently earn up to €111,822, but their hospital consultant colleagues 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.

In a statement issued to mark what would have been the first day of strike action, the Chair of the IMO Public Health Committee Dr Ina Kelly accused the Government of shocking indifference to the danger of an understaffed public health medicine service.

She noted that much of their current work is focused on limiting the size and impact of Covid-19 outbraks in nursing homes and hospitals - but claimed their commitment was not matched by a Government which continued to ignore the need for a consultant-led public health medicine workforce.  

She accused the government of damaging indifference to the morale of public health doctors manning the frontline in the fight against Covid-19. 

Dr Kelly acknowledged that progress had been made during talks between January 2019 and January 2020, but said nothing had progressed since then "...despite the fact that we did everything that was asked of us and more, with too few resources."

"Given the inaction by Government it is difficult to see how strike action can be avoided", Dr Kelly concluded. 

The Department of Health has previously acknowledged that consultant status was recommended for the public health specialty under a new public health framework in the Crowe Horwath Report published in 2018.

The Department has also stated it was consistent with the role envisaged for the public health specialists in Sláintecare and the Scally Report on the National Cervical Check Screening Service.

It said late last year that the Minister for Health, the Department and the Health Service Executive were committed to the early introduction of a new framework for public health care, as provided for in the Programme for Government, and that this would involve the establishment of a consultant-led public health model in line with the Crowe Horwath Report.