The Government is committed to recognising the dedication of healthcare workers during the pandemic, and is considering how best to do that, the Taoiseach has told the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
However, INMO President Karen McGowan responded by urging Micheál Martin and the Government to move swiftly from consideration to implementation, and warned of a potential mass exodus of student nurses after the pandemic.
Addressing the union's online annual conference, Micheál Martin praised the role of nurses and midwives during the pandemic which had brought severe illness, suffering and loss to so many people and their families.
He acknowledged changes including technology and other reforms, and the role of INMO members in the rollout of the vaccination programme.
"The Government is committed to recognising the great dedication that you and all the healthcare workers made during the pandemic, and work is ongoing to determine how best we do that," he told delegates.
He said that as of the end of March, almost 41,000 nurses and midwives were working in the public health service, of whom 2,105 were recruited in the last 12 months.
"This increase in recruitment has been critical in supporting the health service in delivering care during the biggest public health crisis in arguably a century," he said.
The Taoiseach pledged the Government's commitment to continued development of the profession, and stressed the importance of the planned Framework for Safe Staffing and Skill Mix.
He said Sláintecare was the major reform programme to transform health and social care services, adding that it incorporated a number of nursing policies and reforms already developed through collaboration between the INMO, the HSE and the Department of Health, and which were already at various stages of implementation.
Micheál Martin also praised the role of student nurses and midwives, and reiterated the Govenrment's commitment to deliver the €100 per week Pandemic Placement Grant recommended in the Collins report.
He said he looked forward to examining the findings of a further, longer term review of their allowances and internship pay.
Responding to the Taoiseach's address, INMO President Karen McGowan said the union appreciated his acknowledgement of the tireless work of nurses and midwives "given the weight of the entire country's health lies on their shoulders".
She told delegates that a "large portion" of the increased recruitment of nurses and midwives was accounted for by students.
Commenting on the promised Pandemic Placement Payment for students, she stated: "It needs to be paid to our students - not discussed, not debated, just paid."
"Retention of these members will be a bigger problem as the fallout from Covid-19 will be the mass exodus of our colleagues," she warned.
The INMO President pledged that the union would hold the Taoiseach to his assurance that consideration was being given to rewards for nurses and midwifes, stating: "The Taoiseach and the Government must move from consideration to implementation."
The INMO also called for urgent support for healthcare workers experiencing so-called "long Covid".
The union is seeking tailored medical supports, flexible rehabilitation and a guarantee that members in this situation will not face loss of income.
HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry confirmed that of the public health workforce of around 120,000, around 16,000 had contracted Covid-19.
Of those around 10% - 1,600 - experienced protracted symptoms for over 3-4 weeks, while between 300 and 400 had suffered from "very protracted" symptoms.
He said that the HSE was working to develop pathways for supports for those affected.