A SENIOR health official, who described Ireland as having the best ambulance service in the world, was forced to qualify his controversial comments after his own staff accused the HSE of being "in denial" about serious failings in emergency response times.
Martin Dunne, who heads the ambulance service, said he was referring to the quality of staff, training, equipment and ambulances available, which are "comparable" to international standards.
But he acknowledged that the time limits set for ambulances responding to life-threatening emergencies were far longer than those demanded by the main patient safety watchdog.
The climbdown, after his remarks on 'Prime Time', came in the wake of ongoing public concern at the high-risk delays by emergency ambulances across the country and the grief of families whose loved ones died despite alerting 999.
Michael Dixon, chairman of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, said management was clearly in denial in the face of revelations in the television documentary, which graphically highlighted the "worrying rise in the number of incidents of serious delays in response times".
However, Tony O'Brien, director general of the HSE, admitted that it could be a year before the key measure, which it is hoped will dramatically increase response times, will be in place. He said it will take that long to put the national control centre in place and it will be the "single most important thing that can happen to improve the service."
He told the Irish Independent: "There is no real alternative. If we want to have a national service that can meet the needs of our population we need a national control centre, it is really as simple as that."
Asked if people who have called 999 should be told by ambulance control how long it is likely to take to reach the patient, he said it is something that will be examined and considered.
Currently, people are only informed about the length of time they will be waiting if they ask but opinion is divided on whether it could cause unnecessary anxiety and fear if the information was automatically given.
However, Dylan Barry, who lost his father Dan to a heart attack after he called 999 and waited 17 minutes for an ambulance, said he would have taken him to the nearby hospital if he had been told about the delay.
Questioned on his views on whistleblower Shirley McEntee, an ambulance controller in the mid-west who appeared on the television programme, Mr O'Brien said the HSE had "no problem with whistleblowers".
"If people have concerns to raise, whether they work for the health service or they don't, we welcome them doing so," he said at the National Homecare Ireland Conference.
"There are obviously ways in which that can be done internally and there are ways that can be done externally. If anyone has any legitimate concern we don't have some of the issues that some other state organisations appear to have."
It has also emerged that the health watchdog, HIQA, is to conduct a six-month review of the ambulance service.