Tuesday 20 November 2018

Taoiseach directly calls on HSE not to sanction additional holidays for health staff over Christmas

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipiladuring a news conference at the Prime Minister's official residence Kesaranta in Helsinki, Finland, November 7, 2018. Lehtikuva/Antti Aimo-Koivisto via Reuters
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipiladuring a news conference at the Prime Minister's official residence Kesaranta in Helsinki, Finland, November 7, 2018. Lehtikuva/Antti Aimo-Koivisto via Reuters

Kevin Doyle in Helsinki, John Downing and Eilish O’Regan

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has directly called on the HSE not to sanction additional holidays for doctors and nurses over Christmas.

Despite criticism from medical unions, the Taoiseach has today gone further in his demands for changes to way hospital operate their Christmas rosters.

And he said while people might “misrepresent” his comments, he “speaks the truth”.

“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 if your service or your business well to always make sure that you match peak demand with peak resources,” Mr Varadkar.

Replying to questions from Independent.ie in Finland, the Taoiseach said views he initially expressed in the Dáil yesterday “shouldn’t be controversial comments”.

“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.

Urged to apologise

Mr Varadkar  has been challenged to publicly apologise to hospital workers for saying emergency department problems are caused because they don’t “turn up” for work over the Christmas period.

Mr Varadkar faced a wall of criticism from all political parties for his remarks on Tuesday about the causes of over-crowding, queues, and reliance on trolleys, at hospital emergency departments.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil it was time the hospitals operated “at full whack” over the upcoming Christmas holiday period, December 22 to January 3 next.  He also warned that consultants and nurses must not take holidays in the first fortnight in January.

Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, said the Taoiseach 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.

Mr Martin said the Taoiseach, also a former health minister, had said previous winter plans had proved “useless” - including those published by Mr Varadkar and other Fine Gael colleagues since 2011.

“He declared in a narky response that it was all the nurses’ fault, it was the consultants’ fault. It was classic blame someone else,” Mr Martin said.

The Fianna Fáil leader said Mr Varadkar response amounted to claims that key staff “don’t turn up” over the Christmas holiday period.

“When is the apology going to come - and when will the winter plan be published?”, Mr Martin asked.

The Taoiseach also faced strong criticisms from Sinn Féin's David Cullinane, Labour leader Brendan Howlin, and People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith. Ms Smith was scathingly critical of pay and conditions for nurses and warned that industrial action in hospitals was a real possibility.

The Taoiseach was absent from the Dáil as he is visiting Finland for Brexit talks at a summit of EU Christian Democrat party leaders. Replying for the Government Agriculture Minister, Michael Creed, said it was wrong to claim the Taoiseach was “blaming” doctors and nurses for the health service problems.

“The Taoiseach didn’t blame doctors or nurses. He said it was appropriate that there should be a critical mass of doctors and nurses on duty, and support services including laboratories, at the most challenging time for the health services,” Mr Creed said.

The Minister told Deputy Smith that ongoing efforts were being made to engage with nursing unions on pay, recruitment and retention of staff.

Nurses and doctors hit back

Earlier today, the head of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), Dr Peader Gilligan, said that a lack of beds, not staff taking holidays over Christmas, is the cause of overcrowding in Irish hospitals. 

Dr Gilligan, an emergency consultant and President of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), said it would be more helpful to see a strategic plan to deliver more beds and recruit staff than blaming doctors and nurses.

Meanwhile, Phil Ní Sheaghdha of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said the Taoiseach was trying to deflect from the real problems. 

“There is no winter plan and said this winter is going to be as bad, but hopefully not worse, than last year.”

Speaking on RTE's Today with Sean O'Rourke, she said INMO members work 365 days a year and many have built up a considerable amount of hours that they are owed.

She said one department in one hospital has 1,000 hours owed.

Ms Ni Sheaghdha said annual leave is curtailed over periods like Christmas and hospital rosters are "totally dependent on agency (staff) and overtime".

She added that said the healthcare system is also dependent on goodwill during crisis periods, such as Storm Emma in March.

Hospitals were plunged into winter levels of overcrowding today as 591 languished on trolleys waiting for a bed.

The number on trolleys is equivalent to one of the worst days of winter overcrowding even though it is still early in November.

There were 60 patients on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick this morning and 55 in Cork University Hospital.

Also hit was Letterkenny University Hospital where 48 patients needed a bed.

In Sligo, 45 patients were faced with delays although they should be in a bed in a ward.

The escalation comes in the wake of controversial comments made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that all hospital staff must be on duty for the worst days of overcrowding after Christmas and in the early New Year. 

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