Thursday 23 January 2020

Colette Browne: 'Abandoned A&E promise and fact we can 'pull out record highs' so often bring shame on this Government'

'In its 2016 election manifesto, Fine Gael promised 93pc of patients would be dealt with in A&Es within six hours. Four years later, just 30pc of patients are being admitted to a ward from A&Es within this target time.' (stock photo)
'In its 2016 election manifesto, Fine Gael promised 93pc of patients would be dealt with in A&Es within six hours. Four years later, just 30pc of patients are being admitted to a ward from A&Es within this target time.' (stock photo)
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

In its 2016 election manifesto, Fine Gael promised 93pc of patients would be dealt with in A&Es within six hours. Four years later, just 30pc of patients are being admitted to a ward from A&Es within this target time.

This is not so much a failure to meet a general election commitment as a complete abandonment of any attempt to achieve it. Could the Government's performance get any worse?

In January 2017, when record numbers of patients were languishing on trolleys and there were calls for a national emergency to be declared, Health Minister Simon Harris said he refused to use "buzz words" like emergency and said the Government would have to "find the resources if we don't have enough beds".

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Apparently, the fact that more than 600 people were being treated on trolleys all over the country wasn't sufficient evidence of a deficit in bed capacity in 2016. The minister had to commission a study to confirm that.

In January 2018, when even more patients were lying on trolleys - a jump of 18pc compared to the previous year, Mr Harris vowed "no effort or resource is being spared" to tackle the problem.

At the time, INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha branded conditions at hospitals "a humanitarian crisis" and a "risk rich environment for those trying to work in such chaotic conditions".

In January 2019, when new records were again set, Mr Harris conceded the vast number of patients confined to trolleys was "unacceptable" and said he had told hospitals to ensure all available beds were opened.

In March of that year, when numbers on trolleys spiked even further, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told the Dáil an elderly woman who visited her GP in Bandon had refused to be admitted to the emergency department at Cork University Hospital saying: "I'd rather die at home than be in here."

In response, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: "I never like to reduce this to statistics, because it is not about statistics, it is about people," before adding: "It is always possible to pull out record highs and record lows by identifying a particular day of the week or a particular hospital or a particular month."

One hopes that someone pulled him aside afterwards to tell him that, actually, behind the statistics, which he finds so objectionable, are real people who are enduring appalling conditions. The statistics are simply a means for us to gauge the extent of the human misery that is being caused by this crisis.

Mr Varadkar's suggestion that Opposition TDs were somehow manipulating numbers on trolleys, and it was "always possible to pull out record highs", was an especially odious response.

According to the INMO, the numbers of patients on trolleys in March 2019 "broke all records for that month".

That's a fact. Not some concoction of the Opposition.

This week, as records were again smashed with 760 people on trolleys, we have heard the same trite responses, the same regurgitated stock statements and the same empty promises from Government.

Addressing journalists with Mr Harris on Monday, Mr Varadkar blamed the flu and bed shortages for overcrowding at hospitals.

"Predicting a bad flu season is like predicting a bad storm - and it still happens. You have to try to manage and prepare for it the best you can," he mused.

Quite right, Taoiseach. But, the evidence from the past four years is that you, and your Government, have been utterly useless at both managing and preparing for the crisis - which rolls around at the same time every year.

Last week, when it was revealed that overcrowding in hospitals in 2019 was the worst ever on record, Mr Harris attempted to defend his performance.

"We've seen about 30,000 extra people at our emergency departments in 2019. We've seen about 5,500 additional people over the age of 65, we've seen about 9,000 additional children in our emergency departments this year.

"So, people talk about the figures as though they are static.

"What's actually happening is our health service is getting busier and busier every year," he said.

If Mr Harris thought this justification would assuage concerns, he was wrong. Demographic changes are supposed to be built into health service plans. We all know we have a growing and ageing population - this should not come as a surprise. If the Government's plans have failed to take demographic changes into account, then the plans are not worth the paper they are written on.

The fact that emergency departments are increasingly busy, or more elderly people are presenting at hospitals, is not a valid excuse for a persistent failure to meet targets or for deteriorating conditions.

It simply means that hospitals need more resources and more staff members to cope with a predictable and measurable increase in demand.

Asked if he was ashamed of having the worst record of any health minister when it comes to hospital overcrowding, a bullish Mr Harris said: "No, I think trolleys are only one metric of the success of a health service."

How can any health minister, cognisant of the fact that many hundreds of patients are lying on trolleys in busy A&Es - many of them elderly and frail, with no privacy, no dignity, and facing worse health outcomes as a result - not feel any shame?

Did the minister feel any shame when a 93-year-old woman was left on a chair in an A&E for 25 hours in 2017? Did he feel any shame when a Cork woman died on a corridor in the A&E unit at CUH before being given a bed last year?

Did the minister feel any shame when a woman in her 80s died on a trolley in University Hospital Galway in September last year? Did he feel any shame when a 90-year-old woman was left on a trolley for 48 hours at University Hospital Limerick in November?

As a country, we should all feel a collective sense of shame that this appalling treatment is being meted out to sick and vulnerable patients.

It beggars belief that the minister doesn't feel an ounce of shame that this is happening on his watch.

Making promises during an election is easy. Living up to those pledges can be quite hard.

This Government has not only failed to address the trolley crisis, it has gotten worse in each successive year they have been in office.

The pesky thing about being in government is the electorate tends to judge you on your record.

As the country faces into the forthcoming general election, voters will expect more than trite responses and defensive statements to explain the Government's abject failure to address this crisis.

Irish Independent

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