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Withdrawal of air ambulance four days a month 'will not put lives at risk' due to contingency plans

Charity-funded Irish Community Rapid Response is stepping in after the withdrawal of the Air Corps service.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Updated Nov 16th 2019, 7:10 PM

AN AIR AMBULANCE service based in Cork is set to provide assistance four days a month from a new base in Roscommon to act as cover, after the Department of Defence said it would withdraw its Athlone-based air ambulance for 16 days between now and February 2020.

The Irish Community Rapid Response – which is charity-funded – will base its helicopter beside Roscommon University Hospital for the assigned days. 

The Department of Defence decision comes due to training and staffing issues, it said. The service has been provided on a permanent basis since 2015 by the Air Corps.

The air ambulance based in Athlone deals with accidents and medical emergencies, primarily dealing with incidents in the west of Ireland. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the decision would not put any lives at risk. 

Varadkar said the current situation is “not ideal”, but he does not think the staffing shortages will result in a loss of life.

“I don’t believe there will be any risk to life or risk of injury,” he said. 

Varadkar said there was no air ambulance in Ireland up to five or six years ago. 

“Now we have two – one based in Athlone and one based in Cork, because of that, we need to train new cadets and new pilots,” he said. 

“They’re being better resourced than they ever have been in the past. But, notwithstanding that there are challenges, particularly when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

“The issue involving the Coast Guard isn’t to do with financial resources – it is to do with equipment and life jackets and hopefully it can be resolved quite soon,” he added.

“The Athlone helicopter, run by defence force, will be off duty, but we have a solution in place to provide cover. The auxiliary backup helicopter from Cork will move to the Midlands and will be backed up from the Coast Guard too.”

Varadkar’s comments echoed those by Paul Kehoe, the minister of state with responsibility for defence. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra, Kehoe said the suspension of the Athlone service “will not put lives at risk” due to the contingency plans in place.

This includes the Irish Community Rapid Response and the Irish Coast Guard, he said.

Kehoe said this decision was made on the foot of advice and that it would be “irresponsible” not to accept this advice. 

This move was being taken now because the service isn’t as busy during the winter months as summer months, he said.

“It could not have been avoided,” the minister added. Kehoe refused to say when he was made aware of the issue with the service. 

‘Extremely concerning’

Independent TD Denis Naughten, meanwhile, said in a statement that the support from the Irish Community Rapid Response is “not just to maintain the existing level of emergency air ambulance service but to see it expanded to cater for more patients and over a longer period of time, specifically at night”.

He added: “This announcement is about protecting and enhancing the emergency ambulance service in the Midlands and West of Ireland and I expect further announcements in this area with the publication of the HSE service plan in the coming weeks.”

Fianna Fáil’s defence spokesperson Jack Chambers said that lives were being put at risk by the grounding of the air ambulance operated by the Defence Forces in Athlone.

Chambers said: “This is extremely concerning for the regions which rely on this service to save lives.”

He added that this was an outcome of the “recruitment and retention crisis which Minister Kehoe continues to ignore”. 

Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly also said the government had repeatedly ignored concerns about the system. 

“The air ambulance service is a crucial one and a successful one; unfortunately its success have not been built on and no additional ambulances or staff have been added to the service,” she said.

With reporting from Press Association

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Sean Murray

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