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Overcrowding task force to lose powers

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Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Collins

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Collins

Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Collins

A high-level task force set up by the Taoiseach to tackle overcrowding in emergency departments will no longer have an oversight function, according to proposed changes to its terms of reference.

The Emergency Department Task Force Oversight Implementation Group is to sign off on the changes, which state that it will be "advisory" in nature, with no "oversight responsibility".

The changes follow the group's failure to stop the trolley crisis from reaching record levels. The much-vaunted task force failed to drive down the overcrowding that has congested emergency departments almost every year since it was formed.

It was set up in 2014 by then health minister Leo Varadkar with the intention of "getting on top of this problem once and for all" at a time when 570 people were waiting on trolleys. However, last week was the worst on record.

The group was convened to develop solutions to ED overcrowding and to oversee the implementation of an Emergency Department Action Plan. It is co-chaired by HSE deputy director general Anne O'Connor and Phil Ni Sheaghdha, general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, and includes representatives of hospital groups, health officials, the HSE and patient advocates.

A "reaffirming" of the group's terms of reference, circulated last year, states that it will have no executive or oversight responsibility.

However, Ms Ni Sheaghdha told the Sunday Independent that the oversight role of the activities of emergency departments will continue. She said the "enhanced" terms of reference will expand the membership of the group, to include advocates for older people and other stakeholders.

The Irish Patients Association (IPA) has previously complained that the task force had been meeting infrequently and drifted away from goal- driven meetings.

The most recently available minutes for a task force meeting last October, attended by Health Minister Simon Harris, record three "actions" to be taken on emergency department overcrowding. One was a request by Mr Harris that pillows and blankets should be available to waiting patients.

Stephen McMahon, of the IPA, who is a member of the task force, said patients had been failed and the group was "responsible".

"I'm sorry and I'm also frustrated," he added.

A spokesperson for the Health Minister said he "strongly believes there is an important role for the ED task force. However, he believes it is appropriate the terms of reference and the scope are currently being reviewed".

Sunday Independent