Rotas for paramedics in the National Ambulance Service (NAS) are in chaos just days before one of their busiest weeks of the year.
Large swathes of north Leinster are facing the prospect of having no ambulances after an alleged blunder by NAS management saw a high number of staff being granted annual leave. According to well-placed sources, there was a scramble to get staff to cover shifts.
Text messages seen by the Irish Independent show management actively seeking staff to work just days away from the busy Christmas period. It has been claimed that up until Wednesday, no staff had been scheduled to man ambulance services in Monaghan between December 25 and 31. Only one ambulance was scheduled for service between December 21 and 24 and into the new year. A single ambulance was also scheduled for service in Drogheda and Navan.
Internal memos seen by this newspaper reveal all leave was cancelled after 6pm yesterday.
"All leave has been cancelled by Sagem Text for the Christmas and New Year period. Managers feel that they had no option at all, for reasons which will become apparent," the memo read.
It is now feared a number of staff will take unauthorised sick leave, putting the service under "serious strain".
"It is going to put staff under massive pressure," said a source. "There is a population of over 250,000 in north Leinster. If there are no ambulances in Monaghan it means we may have to cross in from Louth or Cavan. That will take a bus off the road for over two hours.
"It will put lives at risk. We have a situation where people are being told the annual leave ... [that had been granted] has been cancelled. Many had made plans with their families and are saying they will phone in sick as a result. In the past the HSE have used private ambulance services. I don't see why they can't this time."
National Organiser for SIPTU's Health Division Paul Bell said a number of its NAS members confirmed their leave had been cancelled.
"It appears there is a lot of confusion here but progress is being made to rectify it. Ultimately, management should have been aware of this and not have left it until three days before the week is due to start to fix it. It is up to them to ensure the correct cover is in place to provide the appropriate emergency services to the public without affecting staff entitlements," he said.
Workers said they were required to submit their annual leave requests by August 31. A HSE spokesperson said that "annual leave for the Christmas period had yet to be finalised".
"The NAS can confirm that the leave rosters have not been finalised for the Christmas and early new year yet.
"Arrangements are still being worked through with staff and managers."
The HSE failed to answer questions surrounding the use of private ambulance services. It is understood that the text message to cancel leave was only sent after the Irish Independent had raised the issue with the HSE.