03/25/2014 04:30 EDT | Updated 05/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia premier won't tip his hand as strike clock ticks down for nurses

HALIFAX - Premier Stephen McNeil wouldn't tip his hand Tuesday on the Nova Scotia government's plans as a strike looms by nurses working for the province's largest health authority, but he urged both sides to continue negotiations.

Nurses who work in the Halifax area can go on strike April 3 and have promised to defy legislation that declares them an essential service to force them back to work.

"We're going to continue to watch the process and obviously as a government we'll use whatever means are necessary to ensure that patient safety is being protected," McNeil told a news conference.

McNeil said the government is watching for progress at the negotiating table between the Capital Health District Authority and the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

Mediated talks between the union representing 2,400 nurses and the health authority reached an impasse on Sunday.

The provincial legislature resumes sitting Thursday.

McNeil ruled out binding arbitration as a possible solution, saying it would be unacceptable for a third party to determine what the province is able to pay.

"I encourage the two sides to get at the table and find a resolution to this challenge," he said.

A key union demand is nurse-to-patient ratios, something it says would improve patient safety. But Capital Health says there is no evidence that shows mandated ratios guarantee improved patient safety.

McNeil said the province has about 980 registered nurses for every 100,000 people when the national average is about 780. Given those figures, he said some solution could "surely" be worked out.

But Robert Chisholm, a registered nurse who is part of the union's negotiating team, said McNeil's math neglects demographics in Nova Scotia, where patients tend to be older than they are in the rest of the country.

"That older population also has more chronic illness as well as cancer rates," said Chisholm.

Chisholm said there has been "no movement whatsoever" from the health authority in even talking about the ratios.

The health authority has said the threat of a walkout means it will have to speed up plans to cancel surgeries and return patients to hospitals outside of Halifax.

The union has said organ transplants would continue and nurses would staff basic coverage areas including the emergency room, intensive care units, veterans' care, hemodialysis and cancer care.

Both sides met Tuesday to discuss emergency services in the event of a strike.

In an email, Capital Health spokesman John Gillis said the sides discussed the authority's clinical concerns but the union didn't say whether it would adjust emergency staffing levels.

"That means, for instance, as it stands we do not have confirmed staffing that would allow us to do organ donation transplant."

Gillis said there were numerous other areas of concern and that no new bargaining talks were planned.