The health minister has waded into the row over medics’ Christmas leave, saying the Taoiseach was right to call on hospital staff to cancel holidays over the festive period.
As the war of words escalated, Simon Harris said Leo Varadkar was “entirely correct”. However, he shifted responsibility for implementing the measure to the HSE, saying: “Hospital management is charged with ensuring this takes place”.
Mr Varadkar specifically referred to nurses and hospital consultants, particularly emergency medicine consultants, in his call to curtail leave.
He doubled down on his comments yesterday, on a day when nearly 600 patients were left on hospital trolleys.
Mr Harris’ decision to add his support has drawn the ire of health unions, among them the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), whose members are currently gearing up towards strike action.
The INMO, the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine (IAEM), and the Irish Hospital Consultants Association accused Mr Varadkar of trying to deflect from the real crisis, including the absence, to date, of a winter plan and inadequate bed capacity.
President of the IHCA, Donal O’Hanlon, said the Taoiseach comments were an attempt “to trivialise the very serious issue of the hospital bed shortage”. He said the trolley crisis was not just a Christmas problem but was “a year-round crisis” due to the lack of capital investment in public hospitals.
Dr O’Hanlon said that hundreds of thousands of patients were on trolleys and waiting lists as there isn’t enough beds and becayse over 500 permanent hospital consultant posts are unfilled.
INMO general secretary Phil Ní Shéaghdha said the comments were “purely to divert from the real issue, which is that there is no winter plan”.
She said they had been seeking a meeting of the ED taskforce for some time, but that the first available date for the HSE and Department of Health was November 19.
The HSE said it “is at present examining the options in terms of deliverability and impact for this winter in the context of the additional €10m once off funding, and a final plan will be submitted to the Department of Health for approval this week”.
IAEM president Emily O’Conor said she was at a loss as to why Mr Varadkar was “being so inflammatory” and that “focusing on EDs and cancelling leave was absolutely the wrong end of the stick”.
“I don’t know if it’s a political ploy to deflect from the lack of bed capacity,” she said, adding that it would “do nothing to attract staff back to work for the HSE”.
She said the structure of the health service is such that most services — apart from EDs — function five days a week, and until it changes to a seven day a week service, there would always be problems with overcrowding.
Consultant oncologist and former senator John Crown, said hospital workers were entitled to public holidays.
The Taoiseach said: “It makes sense if you are running your service or your business well to always make sure that you match peak demand with peak resources.”
Mr Harris said it was important staffing levels across the hospitals, including in emergency departments, for diagnostics services and in community and primary care services, are sufficient to enable staff provide the services that patients require over the period.
He said ensuring this happens “helps avoid a very significant surge at the start of the new year period”.
He said lessons learned from last year’s winter crisis meant this time signed off staffing rotas were part of the planning process for the winter and holiday period.
“This is all part of the discussions that are ongoing between the department and the HSE,” he said.