LEO’S TWO CHRIST­MAS HOL­I­DAYS AS HEALTH MIN­IS­TER

Varad­kar went to Florida and Ca­naries as trol­ley f ig­ures f luc­tu­ated

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Claire Scott

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.

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