Premier Stephen McNeil implored nurses with Nova Scotia's largest health authority and their employer to settle their differences and avoid a walkout as the spring sitting of the legislature opened Thursday.
Mr. McNeil said the government was monitoring developments in the labour dispute and promised once again to protect patient safety if the 2,400 nurses employed by the Capital District Health Authority walk off the job when they enter a legal strike position April 3.
He was asked at what point would his government introduce essential services legislation, as he has done earlier this year to stave off a strike by home care workers.
"Our hope is that we'll find a settlement before the 3rd and we encourage the two sides to get back to the table and find a solution," Mr. McNeil said.
Despite the government's request for the two sides to get back to the negotiating table, Health Minister Leo Glavine said he has seen no indication that was about to happen. "No, the latest I've heard is that Capital Health is concerned about the level of emergency coverage should there be a strike in the next seven days," Mr. Glavine said.
The sides broke off mediated talks on Sunday and have since met to discuss emergency staffing levels.
Capital Health spokesman John Gillis said the union has agreed to provide greater levels of emergency staffing and additional on-call coverage.
"However, the union's proposed emergency staffing numbers remain well short of our clinical contingency plan," Mr. Gillis said in an e-mail.
He said under levels proposed by the union, more than half the beds in certain units at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax would close, creating a backlog of admitted patients in the hospital's emergency department.
But the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents the nurses, said it has agreed to 100-per-cent staffing in key areas, including the emergency room, intensive care units, cancer care, veterans care and hemodialysis.
"In fact we have offered the services of more than half the nurses of the entire facility, which is well above and beyond the requirement that currently exists in the collective agreement for emergency services," union president Joan Jessome said in a news release.
Mr. McNeil said the differing views on emergency staffing were a concern. He said the sides need to agree on staffing levels, an issue that will be part of a broader discussion with the government as it begins to merge the province's health districts in the fall.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the government should have introduced essential services legislation with the opening of the house and preliminary cancellation of procedures already underway at Capital Health.
"I want to see the plan now so people don't have to be worried about what's going to happen when they go to the hospital," Mr. Baillie said.
The key sticking point in the dispute is a demand from the union is to increase nurse-to-patient ratios, something it says would improve patient safety. The Capital District Health Authority says there is no evidence that shows mandated ratios guarantee better safety.