Simon Harris at war with officials as 'worst ever' trolley crisis looms

Health Minister Simon Harris and former HSE boss Tony O’Brien. Photo: Tom Burke

Philip Ryan

A serious breakdown in trust between Health Minister Simon Harris and his officials is threatening health service morale and planning as the country faces the worst hospital trolley crisis on record.

Senior officials in the Department of Health are understood to be furious over the minister’s failure to back civil servants during the CervicalCheck scandal.

A well-placed source said there was a “complete lack of trust” between high-ranking health officials and Mr Harris due to the handling of the cancer controversy. Another source said the level of distrust between the minister and some of his officials was “quite palpable”.

The breakdown in relations at the heart of the health service comes as senior medical professionals warn the country is completely unprepared for what is set to be the worst hospital trolley crisis since records began.

In a damning indictment of the minister’s handling of the crisis, Irish Nurse and Midwives Organisation general secretary Phil Ni Sheaghdha said she expects a shocking 100,000 people will have been left to languish on hospital trolleys by the end of the year.

“These people are on a trolley at 8am in the morning because there isn’t a bed available for them and we know for a fact many are on trolleys for 24 hours or more,” Ms Ni Sheaghdha told the Sunday Independent.

Separately, Irish Medical Organisation president Dr Peadar Gilligan said there had been “more reactive planning than strategic planning” to address the escalating hospital overcrowding problem.

“There can be nothing more urgent than having a situation where a patient needing an emergency admission to hospital has to wait 24 hours for a bed and that is the national reality,” Dr Gilligan said.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail health spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said he believed the “Government has lost control of the healthcare system”.

“There is a real concern that the health service has reached a tipping point where a combination of doctor shortages, spiralling waiting lists, hospital overcrowding and many other factors are combing to create a perfect storm,” Mr Donnelly added.

Last week, the health service was at the centre of the review of the confidence and supply agreement which sets out the terms for Fianna Fail facilitating the Fine Gael led-minority government.

The worrying health crisis comes as the Sunday Independent has learned of a breakdown in trust between Mr Harris and his officials over his handling of the CervicalCheck scandal.

The minister was severely critical of HSE and Department of Health officials involved in the crisis which led to resignation of HSE director Tony O’Brien.

Senior officials are understood to be furious over the minister’s refusal to express confidence in Department of Health chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan during the controversy.

Mr Harris also said publicly he had a lack of confidence in CervicalCheck clinical director Grainne Flannelly before she was forced to resign over her handling of the service.

The minister is also known to have personally reprimanded officials over the lack of information they provided him with when the crisis first emerged.

A source said: “The minister will not be getting Christmas cards from some of his key officials this year.

“In the HSE they are used to getting trounced but they are not used to it in the Department of Health,” the source added.

The internal fallout from the cancer scandal has also delayed preparations for winter overcrowding of hospitals, according to Dr Gilligan.

“We haven’t been hearing much from the Emergency Department taskforce this year as we have in previous years, despite the fact that we’ve had the worst October we’ve ever had in the history of trolley counts,” he said.

Dr Gilligan said the additional €10m budgeted for the winter trolley crisis was “relatively small” given the scale of the problem in the country’s hospitals.

“Bizarrely we have fewer beds now than we did 10 or 15 years ago in the acute hospital system, despite a 6pc increase in population. It is very concerning for us in the health services,” he said.

“There isn’t a level of intent that the patients of Ireland and doctors of Ireland need to see around this issue.

“In the same way we are building enough houses or apartments for the population in a timely manner, we haven’t had enough beds,” he added.

A spokesperson for the minister did not address the breakdown in trust between Mr Harris and his officials, but instead highlighted the actions he has taken on the CervicalCheck crisis.

“Winter will, like every other year, be a challenge for the health service but the HSE is putting the necessary plans in place, aided by the additional resources.

“Waiting lists for hospital operations and procedures are also dropping each month with this trend expected to continue and further improve as a result of additional resources arising from the budget,” she added.