Irish doctors have gone on strike over working conditions in another blow to Prime Minister Enda Kenny and his beleaguered coalition government.

The one day strike by non-consultant hospital doctors began at 7am on Tuesday morning in 51 hospitals across the country.

The strike comes just days after Kenny was embarrassed by defeat in the referendum to decide on the future of the Irish senate.

The Irish Times reports that 12,000 outpatient appointments and 3,000 operations have been cancelled as a result of the industrial action.

The paper says emergency departments are open but patients are experiencing delays as staffing levels are reduced.

Over 3,000 doctors have joined the action in protest at their long working hours.

The strike comes ahead of next week’s budget when health minister James Reilly is expected to announce further cuts in his department’s spending.

The union representing the doctors, the Irish Medical Organisation, has described the action as a ‘dramatic escalation’ of its long-running dispute over the issue of ‘dangerously long’ working hours.

Speaking to the Irish Times from a picket outside the Mater Hospital in Dublin, Eric Young, assistant director of industrial relations at the IMO, said doctors’ main concern was patient safety.

He said: “We want to see a situation where patients are treated by doctors who are rested and are in a position to provide maximum care.”

Liam Doran, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, told the Irish Times that nurses and midwives would be carrying out their nursing duties as normal but would not take on the work of their doctor colleagues.

Doran said: “We won’t be providing any extra duties... but we’re supporting and solid with our doctor colleagues as they strive to implement something that should have been implemented nine years ago.”

The IMO has warned of further hospital strikes to follow unless the Health Service Executive, HSE, engages seriously on the issue of long working hours.

The organisation says its members are providing the equivlent of Sunday levels of staffing, with one additional on-call registrar for intensive care units.

IMO spokesman Young has warned further days of action might follow if the HSE continued to ignore the continuing breach of European directives.

He added: “The HSE has relied on the goodwill and professionalism of our members to continue working illegal working hours.

“They can no longer take our members for granted. They must demonstrate a commitment to engaging with our members in a serious and credible way or there will be further disruptions ahead.”