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Nurses' unions reject draft Patient Safety Act as contract talks continue

Facing the threat of mass resignations and looming ICU strikes by nurses, the cabinet continued negotiations on the controversial bill on Sunday.

Nursing strikes could threaten operations at several hospital intensive care units (file photo from Oulu University Hospital ICU). Image: Paulus Markkula / Yle

The five governing parties failed to reach an agreement on Saturday regarding the Patient Safety Act, which aims to safeguard essential treatment of patients during nurses' strikes. Under the law, nurses could be forced to work to ensure patient safety.

With several nurses' strikes looming – as well as threats of mass resignations – the bill is to be presented to Parliament within the next few days.

Negotiations ended on Saturday evening without a consensus on the content of the law, and continued on Sunday. The draft law was also discussed in detail on Thursday and Friday by a ministerial working group on health and social services.

According to Yle sources, the proposal is particularly problematic for the Left Alliance, which has demanded that its terms be defined precisely. Education Minister Li Andersson's party is concerned that without precise limits on the situations in which essential work can be required, the law could be misused to undermine the right to strike.

Lindén: Weekend talks just "fine-tuning"

Social Services Minister Aki Lindén from the prime minister's Social Democratic Party told Yle on Saturday that much progress had been made in negotiations on Friday and the weekend talks were about "fine-tuning" the bill. Last spring, Lindén – himself a physician – suspended preparations for the bill after nurses' unions called off a threatened strike.

On Sunday, the draft law was presented to nurses' and employers' organisations at a hearing hosted by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The hearing was originally to be held on Saturday, but was postponed as negotiations dragged on.

Nurses' unions slammed the proposal as a "forced labour law" that would limit the right to strike while not offer solutions to the long-term nursing shortage, which they argue poses a far greater threat to patient safety.

The Tehy and Super unions said in a press release on Sunday that they oppose the law and consider it unnecessary. According to the labour unions, the law would give employers the sole authority to define the amount of essential work needed and to limit any strike. The groups warned that the law would completely remove the right to industrial action in the social and healthcare sector.

The proposal is to be presented to Parliament at the beginning of the week.

The legislation is being rushed through as impending nurses' strikes threaten to halt the operation of several intensive care units.

The strikes would target the ICUs at Kanta-Häme Hospital District, Turku University Hospital and Oulu University Hospital. Strike warnings have also been issued for home care in Helsinki and Oulu.

The management of the hospital districts and the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira) have warned of the risks posed by the strikes, including possible patient deaths.

ICU strike hits Hämeenlinna on Friday

Even if sent to the legislature on Monday, the law would not come into effect before the first strike, which is to begin on Friday in Kanta-Häme, which includes the city of Hämeenlinna. The strike is to last 24 hours.

Lindén told MPs last week that, if approved promptly, the law would take effect in time to cover the labour disputes concerning the Turku and Oulu university hospitals. The strike in Turku is due to start on 20 September, followed by Oulu on 27 September.

At the same time, mediation of a labour dispute in the care sector is also underway. The parties are to meet on Sunday at the National Conciliator's Office on Helsinki's Bulevardi.

State labour mediator Anu Sajavaara told Yle that she is assessing the conditions for issuing a settlement proposal in the middle of next week. If an agreement were to be reached, the ICU strikes would be cancelled.

14.52: Added nursing unions' statement.

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