Thursday 23 January 2020

Ian O'Doherty: 'We've just had worst day ever for overcrowding in our hospitals, yet Harris is 'proud' of job he's doing'

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: PA
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Yesterday saw another record breaking achievement by the current government, although even they would struggle to spin it into a positive story.

Monday, January 6, will now go into the books as the single worst day for hospital overcrowding in the history of this State.

Even by Irish standards, where we have all become used to endless delays and a lack of beds in our hospitals, the figures are startling, shameful and, yes, infuriating.

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Beating the previous record set during the so-called 'Beast From The East' weather bomb in 2018, yesterday morning witnessed 760 patients languishing on trolleys while they waited in the forlorn hope that they would be allocated a bed.

To put that figure into perspective, you could entirely fill St James's, the largest hospital in the country, with all those patients on trolleys and you'd still need to build a new wing to find extra room for the excess 63 people who would be without a bed.

Think about that for a moment.

At times like this, all the government posturing about the economy being back on track and claims that we're in the best shape we've been for a decade (although that's a rather low bar) seem like a sick joke. Pun intended.

In fact, if you were to apply the old Irish adage that 'your health is your wealth', then the current shocking statistics remind us that we're in a very poor position indeed.

If anything, the statement from the INMO that the situation is "simply shameful" was remarkable in its restraint and, as that organisation's general secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, put it: "Ireland's beleaguered health service continues to break records in the worst possible way. Our members are working in impossible conditions to provide the best care they can."

That is undeniably true and if it wasn't for the heroic work done by many nurses this intolerable situation would be even more catastrophic.

But even their Herculean efforts can't carry on indefinitely - the image of one veteran nurse breaking down in tears over the scene that confronted her in Cork is a reminder that the people we rely on to keep us alive are themselves already stretched, physically and emotionally, to a dangerous breaking point.

Of course, it is true that no country is ever fully happy with its health service but under this government the health service has now descended into utter chaos and has, in itself, become a threat to life and limb.

Anyone who previously suspected that Health Minister Simon Harris was simply out of his depth will now realise the true gravity of the situation, even if it is a situation which he, for all his platitudes, hasn't fully grasped.

The assertion that the current scenario is simply a result of the inevitable, annual increase in hospital traffic due to the flu season was given suitably short shrift by Ní Sheaghdha, who pointed out that: "The excuse that this is all down to the flu simply doesn't hold. There are always extra patients in winter, but we simply do not have the capacity to cope. This is entirely predictable, yet we seemingly fail to deal with it every year."

We fail to deal with it every year, and every year it just gets worse. So what lessons, if any, has this strikingly inept minister learned?

None, it would appear. The INMO's calls for increased recruitment have met with a mystifyingly dismissive response from Harris, who declared last Thursday that: "What the HSE can't do, and no public service can do, is kind of willy-nilly hire whoever they want. They have to obviously be responsive to government policies and the funding levels in place."

That notion of an organisation being required to live within its means and balance its books might be applicable to a body like the FAI, but is little more than a casual insult when applied to a health service which is utterly broken, failing its patients and failing its staff.

Or maybe Ní Sheaghdha, the unions, the frontline workers and the people on trolleys are simply stupid and don't understand the bigger picture?

Maybe the people whose lives are being ruined by this government's abject incompetence aren't really paying attention? That could be the only rational conclusion reached by anyone who read the minister's comments last week when he rather bizarrely argued that, ultimately, it was all a matter of perception.

When asked if he was ashamed of the fact that his performance these last three years has seen him become, statistically and objectively, the worst health minister in the history of our State, he replied that, actually, he was "proud" of his achievements so far and added for good measure: "I think trolleys are only one metric of the success of the health service. It has many other metrics as well."

In terms of deliberate political self-delusion, that's right up there with hapless Iraqi general 'Comical' Ali denying that the Americans had invaded, even as US tanks trundled into view behind him.

It's also an arrogant slap in the face to all those patients, their families and the people who treat them as best they can.

'Stop whining' was his undertone, and have a look at the bigger picture, the 'metrics'.

They were the patronising platitudes of a bean counter and a pen pusher, not someone the nation is relying upon to rectify this appalling scandal.

But maybe that's unfair? After all, nobody denies that he's a busy man.

Indeed, in recent weeks, he has been obviously preoccupied with far more burning issues than a record-breaking number patients stuck on trolleys.

He has, for instance, taken time out to scold an obscure Catholic Facebook page for its religious objection to IVF.

He has promised to end the apparent scourge of supermarket loyalty cards for booze.

He has also found time to promise free GP care for the under-13s, despite the GPs saying that is a road to even further chaos and is unworkable.

He has promised free contraception for women aged 17-24, despite the fact that the working group set up to examine the issue has advised against it.

He has taken the time to consult Charlie Flanagan about ways to criminalise pro-life protesters outside Holles Street.

All of those stances have one thing in common - for all his proclamations to be a progressive, he is merely another populist politician who plays to his own base.

His lack of regard for the rest of us can be seen in the way he wants to buy votes with offers of free stuff in advance of the rapidly approaching election.

But we're not stupid, no matter what this government might think, and public resentment at the sheer arrogance of his blithe dismissals of legitimate concerns is a reminder of how out of touch he is.

Roll on the election.

Irish Independent

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