Saturday 17 November 2018

Varadkar doubles down on demand for hospital staff to work at Christmas

Diplomacy: Leo Varadkar visits Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila at his official residence in Helsinki
Diplomacy: Leo Varadkar visits Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila at his official residence in Helsinki

Kevin Doyle in Helsinki and John Downing

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will not be backing down from calls for the HSE to restrict holiday leave over the Christmas period, saying it "makes sense".

Mr Varadkar doubled down on his demand for health chiefs to rework their rosters amid fears that the country is on the verge of its worst ever trolley crisis.

Opposition parties are united in their objections to the Taoiseach's assessment of the situation - but he claims to "speak the truth".

Fianna Fáil launched a blistering attack on Mr Varadkar, claiming he was acting like "a radio chat show panellist".

But replying to questions from the Irish Independent while attending a series of meetings in Finland, Mr Varadkar gave a lengthy defence of his position.

"The situation is as simple as this: Every business, every industry, every service has a peak period of demand.

"If you're working retail, it's the week running up to Christmas. If you're in education, it's the first week or two of September. If you're in politics, it's budget week and the few weeks around the budget.

"If you're in tourism, it's the summer period and bank holidays. And it makes sense...to always make sure that you match peak demand with peak resources."

He said his original statements "shouldn't be controversial".

"No bed should be closed because people are on leave. The emergency department and medical consultants should be there. The surgeons can take their holidays during that period because operations get cancelled anyway.

"So it's a question of meeting peak demand with peak resources. That's the norm across industries. It's the norm across services. It should be the norm in the health service as well," he said.

Asked whether he intended to issue a direction to the HSE in order to back up his words, Mr Varadkar said: "I wish I had the authority to do that. This is one of the biggest difficulties we have in our health service. Politicians and government have certain responsibilities but ultimately under law the health service is run by the HSE.

"What I'm saying to the HSE is what I think should be done."

He said the Irish people should know that the HSE has record financial resources, 1,500 more nurses than two years ago, more emergency department consultants and 250 additional beds than last year.

"So it should be obvious to everyone more money, more staff and more beds on their own won't work. We need to properly manage and deploy those resources when they are most needed. That's what I'm saying to the HSE," Mr Varadkar said.

However, back in Leinster House there were calls for the Taoiseach to publicly apologise to hospital workers.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Mr Varadkar had insulted the frontline hospital staff when he was asked why a winter health plan had not been published by the agreed deadline of last July.

Frontbench spokesperson Billy Kelleher described the Taoiseach's comments as "flippant and insensitive" to health service workers "who go above and beyond the call of duty every Christmas".

And in a statement, Labour's health spokesman Alan Kelly said the Taoiseach was "completely out of touch".

"The Taoiseach and the Minister for Health are showing a lack of leadership by refusing to present a winter initiative plan to workers in our health service.

"The comments by the Taoiseach come in the backdrop as nurses in the INMO prepare to ballot to take industrial action over their pay.

"Taoiseach Varadkar's inexperience is coming to the fore yet again [by] making naive comments like this," Mr Kelly said.

He added: "It is a bit rich for Taoiseach Varadkar to criticise people taking annual leave at Christmas time, when the Dáil itself will take four weeks off over the Christmas period."

Irish Independent

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