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Health ministry prepares law to force more striking nurses back to work

Chief physicians and regional government agencies warn that emergency care could be jeopardised by a nurses' strike that began on Friday morning.

Kirsi Varhila, the top civil servant at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, says it may be necessary to force nurses to go to work. Image: Yle

A nurses' strike that began on Friday morning could lead to severe delays in medical care, according to chief physicians in the six major hospital districts affected by the walkout. They say that the job action could endanger the lives and health of patients and could even lead to loss of life.

Unions have negotiated with management on legally mandated skeleton staffing to cover urgent and emergency care – but some hospital district officials say that staffing levels may be inadequate to protect patients during the strike.

On Thursday afternoon, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health said it was preparing legislation to ensure sufficient emergency care.

"This is a temporary law that in a way would even restrict the right to strike, which is a fundamental right. Therefore, the government must quickly submit this bill to Parliament, and MPs must debate it before the law can enter into force," Kirsi Varhila, the ministry's Permanent Secretary, told Yle.

Law could enter into force next week

The bill would allow management to order striking nurses to do urgent work, but only as a last resort if the safeguards provided for in the current law are insufficient to ensure patient safety, the ministry said.

Varhila said it would take at least a week for the law to enter into force. It could only be introduced once the effects of the strike begin to become clear.

"Of course, we hope that there will be enough coverage of urgent care and that no separate regulation is needed," she said. A broader strike may take effect two weeks from now.

Union boss: Patient safety always at risk due to understaffing

Millariikka Rytkönen, president of the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals in Finland (Tehy), one of the organisations leading the strike, said she was baffled by the chief physicians' stated concern about patient safety.

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Tehy president Millariikka Rytkönen Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

"I have not seen any concerns about the shortage of nurses from the same gentlemen who are now expressing their concern about the nurses' industrial action, which is completely legal," Rytkönen said.

Rytkönen said the strike warning was filed and negotiations held on urgent care, all in accordance with the law. She pointed out that employers had four weeks to prepare for the situation.

According to Rytkönen, patient safety is in danger every day, even during normal times, because there are too few nurses due to low salaries in the industry.