LEO’S TWO CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS AS HEALTH MINISTER
Varadkar went to Florida and Canaries as trolley f igures f luctuated
TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar took Christmas sunshine breaks both years he was Minister for Health. This is despite his highly critical comments this week suggesting extended holidays taken by doctors and nurses over the Christmas period are to blame for the winter trolley crisis.
Mr Varadkar’s festive holidays – to Miami and the Canary Islands – are likely to reignite criticism of his comments, which have been condemned by the Opposition and representatives of nurses and doctors.
Unions have already rejected Mr Varadkar’s comments, with nursing unions arguing their members are restricted in what annual leave they can take in December and early January.
Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall, formerly a junior health minister, branded it a ‘cynical attempt’ to shift focus off the Government’s failure to address the trolley crisis and
long hospital waiting lists. Today a secret nurse – offered anonymity to ensure there are no repercussions for her in her role – has written about the specific restrictions imposed on her and her colleagues at her hospital over the winter period – restrictions which directly contradict Mr Varadkar’s point of view.
The mother told the Irish Mail on Sunday: ‘We cannot take annual leave for the two weeks before Christmas, we cannot take time off in a block over the Christmas and we cannot take leave the first week of January.
‘We work Christmas Day every second year, and if you are off, you are definitely working on Christmas Eve and St Stephen’s Day.’
She is reacting to the comments made by the Taoiseach in response to delays in the Government announcing its winter plan to ease the growing and widening annual crisis.
Responding to pressure from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Mr Varadkar told the Dáil that the winter plan in previous years has ‘not worked’ and that it was important to deliver a plan that would work.
He said on Tuesday: ‘We need to make sure, for the first time ever, that during that period the radiology departments and labs are open and working at full whack, that consultants are not on holidays in the first week of the year, particularly those who work in the emergency departments and that nurses are not on leave in the first two weeks of January.’
The next day in Helsinki, the Taoiseach doubled down on the criticism, and was backed up by Health Minister Simon Harris.
However it seems Mr Varadkar wants the HSE to do as he says, not as he does. During his first year in Health – in the 2014-15 Christmas period – he took a holiday in Miami, Florida. At the time, trolley figures were escalating to emergency levels, with a daily average of 504 in the first week of January. Former health minister Mary Harney previously declared trolley numbers above 495 to be a ‘national emergency’.
Mr Varadkar was criticised by TDs with then-opposition TD Finian McGrath saying: ‘This is a national emergency. I am absolutely appalled the minister is not around to answer questions.’
In January 2015, Mr Varadkar admitted it was a bad time to go abroad, saying: ‘I have family in Florida and I went to visit them for a few days. But given the situation, I was keen to get back to Ireland because it is difficult to manage these things from telephone and Skype.’
Yet it didn’t prevent him from taking off on holiday again over the 2015-2016 festive period. He took four days’ leave between December 29 and January 2. The trolley figures escalated from a weekly average of 213 in the last week of December to 477 a week later.
That trip drew the ire of Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers, who said: ‘The top boss of any organisation wouldn’t go on holidays as the predictable crisis is reaching its peak.
‘In my view, the minister has shown a great error of judgment that smacks of arrogance.’
Mr Varadkar called it a ‘personal and unfair attack’ on him. On his return from the Canaries, he announced his intention to tour six emergency departments to inspect trolley levels on January 4.
His press release acknowledged this was ‘traditionally, one of the busiest weeks for trolley numbers’.
In light of the revelations of Mr Varadkar’s Christmas breaks while minister, Róisín Shortall last night called his comments about the festive holidays of medical staff a ‘cynical attempt at shifting attention away from the failings of government in relation to long waiting lists and huge trolley figures’.
‘It seems that Leo Varadkar didn’t think twice about going off in the midst of a health care crisis when he was Minister for Health. So, maybe he should just look to his own record in this before he starts criticising other people.
‘I think he’d be much better off ensuring there’s adequate funding for the kinds of reforms that we need within the health service rather than making off-the-cuff comments that have serious effects on the morale of health care staff.’
Phil Ní Sheaghdha, of the INMO, said: ‘Most nurses and midwives are already obliged to work shifts covering 365 days a year – including
‘Minister’s error of judgment that smacks of arrogance’
Christmas and New Year. They are also already restricted from taking leave at certain points in the year.
‘The issue isn’t annual leave, it’s vacancies. You can’t cover shifts with unfilled positions. The HSE simply can’t hire enough nurses and midwives on these wages.’
Dr Donal O’Hanlon, President of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, rejected Mr Varadkar’s comments, saying they ‘attempted to trivialise the very serious issue of the hospital bed shortage’.
‘There is absolutely no doubt that the most significant issue… is the lack of capacity in our public hospitals. The trolley crisis is not just over the Christmas period. The lack of capital investment in our public hospitals has resulted in a yearround crisis for hospitals… struggling without the means to provide a proper standard of care…’
Yesterday, in an op-ed in The Irish Times, Mr Varadkar attempted to soften his comments on frontline staff by arguing it was management practices within the health service that are the main contributor to the ever-growing crisis.
Former Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher responded: ‘The Taoiseach has returned to his favourite role as a commentator on issues. Reading his article on health system rostering, you’d be forgiven for not realising that he has been in government for nearly eight years and was the minister directly responsible for two years.
‘This is the type of guff that brings politics into disrepute and undermines the public’s belief that we can deal with problems in health. The Taoiseach was the minister for health and I can’t find one policy initiative that he implemented to address these issues.’
Asked about his Christmas trips, Mr Varadkar – through a spokesman – refused to comment last night. He also refused to say whether he would accept Minister Harris taking a winter break this year.