Nurse protest Capital Health Stephen McNeil

Nurses with the Capital District Health Authority say they will be wearing these masks in protest. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says his government will use whatever means necessary to ensure patients are protected if registered nurses with the Capital District Health Authority walk off the job.

"They asked us to bring a mediator in, which we did. We're disappointed that didn't last longer, we didn't find a resolution to it," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"We'll continue to watch and allow this process to happen."

McNeil said he's disappointed with the amount of rhetoric and lack of negotiation ahead of a potential strike next week by the 2,300 nurses, responding to a threat by the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union that its membership would go on strike illegally if the government tables essential-service legislation ahead of the April 3 strike deadline.

McNeil would not say when the legislation would be introduced, but said he would hold off ahead of the strike date if there are signs of progress at the negotiating table.

Mediated talks between the union and the Capital District Health Authority reached an impasse over the weekend after three days of negotiations.

A major sticking point in the contract dispute is the nurse-to-patient ratio, which the union has said will improve patient safety.

The Capital District Health Authority, meanwhile, has said there is no evidence that shows mandated nurse-to-patient ratios guarantee improved patient safety. It claims meeting the nurses' demands would require hiring 800 more registered nurses at a cost of more than $60 million per year.

'Difficult to go back'

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said she cannot see how negotiations can restart without the health authority willing to talk about ratios.

"Patient safety is the No. 1 issue for us and we are willing to negotiate what that looks like and how it gets phased in," she said Tuesday.

"But if they're not even willing to talk about it then it's difficult to go back to the table."

According to numbers released by the Liberal government on Tuesday, Nova Scotia's current nurse-to-patient ratio is in the middle of the pack. In the Atlantic region, this province has the fewest number of nurses per 100,000 people. When compared to the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia has the fourth highest nurse-to-patient ratio.

Nova Scotia has 975 nurses per 100,000 while Quebec has 837, Ontario has 699 and British Columbia has 650.

Newfoundland has the highest nurse-to-patient ratio at 1,193 nurses per 100,000 people, while New Brunswick has 1,079 and P.E.I. has 1,064.

"The question becomes, what more is going to make a difference? What more do you want? How much above the national average does Nova Scotia have to become before the union is satisfied?" said McNeil.