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‘Even if I got a cheque for €100 million – I couldn’t fix this overnight’

Leo Varadkar’s comments follow days of controversy regarding overcrowding at Irish hospitals, and come ahead of a nursing strike next week.

Updated at 9.30pm

HEALTH MINISTER LEO Varadkar made a further media appearance this evening on RTÉ’s Nine O’Clock News to address the overcrowding crisis in Irish hospitals.

The Fine Gael minister has visited a number of hospitals this week as the problem continues – while, in a Drivetime interview earlier, he said Irish hospitals are not safe when overcrowding is occurring.

It follows days of controversy regarding overcrowding and comes ahead of a rolling strike action by nurses at emergency departments, beginning from next Thursday.

“Even if I got a cheque for €100 million tomorrow, I won’t be able to build a block overnight. I won’t be able to hire staff overnight,” Varadkar said this evening.

Asked about reported differences between himself and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin, he said:

“Well, look it – we never fully agree. And obviously the role of the Department of Public Expenditure and the Minister for Public Expenditure is to keep spending to a minimum. And the role of a minister like me is to be an advocate for the health services, an advocate of patients, an advocate for staff in our health services.

We do have a substantial increase in the Budget. An €880 million increase in the Budget since I became minister – and that excludes any supplementaries.

What’s been happening? 

Beaumont Hospital on the northside of Dublin took the step earlier this week of asking patients not to attend its emergency department unless absolutely necessary.

The hospital experienced its busiest day in 18 months on Monday of this week, it said, and an INMO official last night described conditions as “inhumane”.

Grilled on Drivetime this evening about the peak in overcrowding in hospitals in recent weeks, the Minister said there were 15% fewer people on trolleys compared to this time last year. The number of people waiting on trolleys more than nine hours is down 25%, he added.

But I totally appreciate that if you’re on the trolley or if it’s your family member on the trolley that’s no good for you.

Beaumont

Describing the current situation at Beaumont earlier today, emergency consultant at the hospital Peadar Gilligan said patients who require admission “are sitting on chairs around the nurses station”.

He insisted there was insufficient capacity in the system and that the lack of beds and staff needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency in order to solve the problem in the long term.

Asked about Gilligan’s comments, Varadkar said the doctor was “right and he’s also not right”. He went on to stress the importance of home-care, primary care and care for the elderly, adding: “and a lot of investment has gone into that in the year gone by”.

Capacity was also a priority, he said, “and that’s why we funded an additional 300 beds this year, 200 of which are open”.

He said 2,000 beds had been taken out of the system during the boom, “1,000 taken out altogether and 1,000 returned from full-time beds, if you like, to day beds”.

8/1/2015 Beaumont Hospitals Source: leah farrell/Photocall Ireland

An emergency nurse had described current working conditions as “unbearable,” presenter Mary Wilson told the Minister – while Dr Gilligan had said he was unable to perform lumbar punctures at the moment, as he couldn’t gain access to cubicles.

“It’s not safe when there’s overcrowding occurring, and that can be a big difficulty – you’ve to take a patient out of the cubicle to bring the patient in to do this,” Varadkar said.

“And you’re the minister in charge of health,” responded Wilson.

Yeah. I am – and I take responsibility for the problems that exist in health, but it’s not the case that these problems don’t occur in other parts of the world, they certainly do.

“It’s certainly not the case that it can be solved in one year.”

Varadkar said a five year programme of investment in primary care and in social care was needed, in addition to ongoing improvements.

4,000 staff had been taken on in the past year, he said – including 750 nurses.

Nursing strike 

Finalising arrangements for strike action next week, the INMO confirmed this evening that rolling two-hour stoppages would take place on Thursday 14 January at the following emergency departments:

  • Beaumont Hospital, Dublin
  • Mercy University Hospital, Cork
  • Tallaght Hospital, Dublin
  • Cavan General Hospital
  • Midland Regional Hospital, Tullamore
  • University Hospital Galway
  • University Hospital, Waterford

With reporting by Cliodhna Russell. 

Read: Overcrowding at Beaumont Hospital ‘inhumane’, with elderly woman left on chair all night>

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