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HSE can't 'willy-nilly' hire whoever they want, Harris says

The government has repeatedly said a recruitment freeze is not in operation.

Image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

HEALTH MINISTER SIMON Harris has denied there is a recruitment freeze in place for the HSE. 

However, the General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has said a recruitment freeze is in place and the contradictory government position on the situation is “rubbish” and “spin”.

Phil Ní Sheaghdha said understaffing and a lack of beds are the reasons overcrowding is hitting record levels in some Irish hospitals. 2019 was the worst year on record for hospital overcrowding as 118,000 patients went without a bed, according to an INMO analysis.

Speaking on Morning Ireland today, Ní Sheaghdha said members of the public “need to have some confidence that 2020 will be different”.

“Our fear is that unless we invest in additional bed capacity in the acute hospitals and in the long-term care and in the step-down areas, we won’t see a major difference. We know January will be pretty, pretty bad. 

“We understand also that the staffing moratorium is not going to be lifted in January. We’re very disappointed that we constantly have to raise with the HSE the fact that this is directly affecting the ability to open more beds, and you have to open more beds when you have a crisis like this and you have to have staff available immediately to staff those beds.”   

The HSE and Department of Health both maintain that no recruitment moratorium is in place, with the department noting in a statement that 10,000 more employees are working in the HSE compared to three years ago and over 1,600 more whole-time equivalent staff members are working in the public health system since December 2018.

‘Simply rubbish’ 

Ní Sheaghdha said the stance that there is no requirement freeze is “simply rubbish”.

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Harris said there is no recruitment freeze, stating that the numbers of people working has increased.

“The health service can’t be the only organisation in the world that allegedly has a recruitment embargo and yet continues to hire thousands more staff every year.

“The number of nurses, the number of doctors, the number of healthcare assistants, the number of allied health care professionals is continuing to grow, and we have a very ambitious recruitment plan for 2020,” he said. 

19191 Talks File photo of Phil Ní Sheaghdha, INMO General Secretary. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

However, the minister added that hospitals must live within their budgets. 

“What the HSE can’t do and no public service can do is kind of just willy-nilly hire whoever they want.

“They do have to obviously be responsive to government policies and the funding levels in place because if they don’t do that you would ask me very different questions about why is there an overrun in relation to health spending as well. So the numbers are growing and they’re growing every year.”

However, Ní Sheaghdha insisted that there is a moratorium in place.

“For example, we’ve been chasing posts that have been vacant in University Hospital Cork, we looked for sanction to have them approved in October, we looked for sanction in November, the sanctions eventually came through on 20 December for 50 posts. Where are you going to get 50 nurses on 20 December?

“And we know that those posts were due to be sanctioned in October so it is a delay tactic, it’s spin, it’s completely disrespectful to people who are working very hard to provide a public health service on the frontline,” she said. 

‘No freeze’ 

Later on Morning Ireland, Culture Minister Josepha Madigan said Ní Sheaghdha is “incorrect” to describe this government’s position as “rubbish”.

“There is a priority requirement for all HSE services to maintain or to get to an affordable staffing level as it’s sustainable in 2019 and 2020 while also prioritising the delivery of safe services, we’re aware of that,” Madigan stated. 

She said “a huge amount of work” still needs to be done but the government is committed to investing in the health sector, noting that one million extra home care hours will be introduced this year.

Over the past few months, TheJournal.ie has spoken to healthcare workers in a variety of areas – nursing, speech and language therapy, physiotherapy, midwifery, administration – who’ve been affected by the recruitment embargo.

The government has always insisted there is no recruitment freeze or moratorium in place. Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Dáil in November: “There is not a recruitment freeze. There is recruitment going on, but it has to be within budgets that have been planned for.

“There is no department that allows the sectors that it is responsible for to recruit staff without a budget to do so. That is what the HSE did in the past, but not any more. This does not mean that the HSE is not recruiting. It is.

“We need to provide more money, and we are. That is why there are significantly more doctors and nurses in the system now than 12 months ago. We will continue to do that.”

Madigan said Fine Gael has opened “more than double the number of primary care centres” that were in operation before the party came to power in 2011 and that since 2016 Health Minister Harris has opened 40 such centres, describing this as “a huge amount”. 

She said there has been a “perfect storm” in the healthcare sector in recent weeks as the flu season arrived earlier than anticipated and “there’s a pent-up demand following Christmas and the new year”.

When launching its Winter Plan in November, the HSE said €26 million would be allocated in an attempt to ease the pressure on hospitals in what is traditionally the busiest period of the year.

When asked for comment, a HSE spokesperson told TheJournal.ie: “The health system is working hard to cope with the increased demand for services and GPs, community services and hospital staff are dealing with very significant surge in workloads.

“The HSE has invested in some additional capacity in both the community services and hospitals. Fair Deal and home support services have received additional resources to deal with demand and up to 199 additional acute beds are being opened to support service delivery.”

They noted that attendances at emergency departments were up 7% in December compared to the same period in 2018. In the week running up to Christmas Eve, ED attendances were up by 14.2% in the same week in 2018 with attendances by people over the age of 75 up by 24.9% in the same week in 2018.

The spokesperson added that the HSE is “investing in additional primary care and home support staff and services in 2020″.

“This includes provision for additional staffing which will be recruited as 2020 progresses. The numbers of staff working in the health services continues to rise within the funding available,” they said.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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