A provincewide nurses strike over Christmas is being ruled out as talks between the provincial government and New Brunswick Nurses Union are scheduled to resume this week.

The two sides will be joined at the negotiating table by John McEvoy, a University of New Brunswick law professor, who will act as a special mediator.

Last Thursday, the nurses voted 94 per cent in favour of strike action and were in a position to walk off the job as early as this coming Friday.

However, Marilyn Quinn, the union president, said with the resumption of negotiations with the addition of McEvoy, the union has postponed any job action until after the holidays.

She said the earliest strike by the nurses would be Jan. 5 if the latest talks fail.

Human Resources Minister Rick Brewer called the development a "positive step."

"Both parties are committed to returning to the table and finding a compromise that will meet the needs of nurses and be fiscally responsible in these difficult economic times," Brewer said in a statement.

Of the province's 5,500 nurses, most work in hospitals and 70 per cent have been designated essential so in the event of a strike they would be required to stay on the job.

Even so, the Department of Health has been working on contingency plans that would involve cancelling elective surgeries and non-urgent diagnostics. Cardiac patients, those in the emergency room, small babies in the neonatal unit or seniors in need of hospital care would get first priority.

The sticking point with the provincial government is compensation for nurses working long overtime shifts and weekends. Quinn has said in the past that these long shifts are causing some nurses to quit or leave the province.

The latest offer from the provincial government was a three-year, 11.5 per cent pay increase worth $91.6 million.

At the end of that period, a nurse designated as RN 2, which the department says is the most common, would see their top rate hit $69,000 up from $61,000.