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HSE trolley crisis: Recruitment freeze is 'starving frontline services of much-needed staff'

The INMO has said that “it’s not hard to join the dots” between delays in staffing and the current trolley crisis.

File. There were 39 patients waiting for a bed in St Vincent's in Dublin yesterday.
File. There were 39 patients waiting for a bed in St Vincent's in Dublin yesterday.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Updated Jan 8th 2020, 11:01 AM

FOR TWO DAYS in a row, there were 760 patients waiting for hospital beds across Ireland and the current crisis is being exacerbated by the recruitment embargo within the HSE, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has said. 

The union also said that the current system for hiring new staff is causing delays of six months and more in filling new positions. 

The number of patients on trolleys in Irish hospitals this week has broken records, with as many as 92 people waiting for a bed at University Hospital Limerick on Monday.

When TheJournal.ie visited the Mater Hospital on Monday, we counted around 10 patients, mostly elderly people, on trolleys solely in the department’s corridors.

One man who has a chronic illness and who was brought in by ambulance had been waiting for a bed on a trolley in the corridor of the ED overnight, for 12 hours.

While flu season is adding to the overcrowding in hospitals, the INMO said that the controls put in place on recruitment are only adding to the problem.

Recruitment ban

The government and HSE have repeatedly insisted that there is no recruitment freeze in the health service.

However, 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 to varying degrees as they were told they been successful in attaining a new job with the HSE but hadn’t yet been able to start them.

It first came to light in April 2019, when Labour’s health spokesperson Alan Kelly shared a letter that had been issued a week before to senior HSE figures.

In that letter, dated 29 March, HSE chief operations officer Liam Woods wrote to senior colleagues to inform them of the recruitment freeze.

He said that recruitment had been suspended for the next three months due to the “financial pressures in the system” from recruitment last year, and the “need to live within the resources provided to the HSE”.

Woods said that it was hoped that this “additional control” will be in effect “for as short a period as necessary”. Those controls were initially put in place until 30 June.

TheJournal.ie reported in July that that deadline came and went, with the freeze persisting and affecting hundreds across the health service.

While the INMO has insisted the freeze is very real and is having a damaging effect, Minister for Health Simon Harris has denied there is a freeze at all.

Last week, he said: “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.

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.

‘Very, very real’

Speaking as the trolley figures showed record levels this week, an INMO spokesperson told TheJournal.ie it’s “very clear” that the HSE recruitment controls are “very, very real”.

“There are hundreds of vacant posts unfilled and staff waiting to start work,” the spokesperson said. “The new process requires approval at a senior level in the HSE for every single hire – even if it’s simply replacing retiring staff, or those on maternity leave.

We know it’s causing delays of six months and more, starving frontline services of much-needed staff.

The spokesperson cited the example of Cork University Hospital. In September, there were 50 funded and vacant nursing posts awaiting new staff, according to the INMO.

Yesterday, there were 47 patients waiting on a bed at Cork University Hospital.

“The staff were on panels and available, but it took huge pressure from the INMO to get the posts approved. This was only done on 20 December,” the spokesperson added.

It’s not hard to join the dots between delays in staffing and the extreme, record-breaking overcrowding in our hospitals today.

Speaking on Monday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar acknowledged that hospitals were “severely overcrowded” and said the situation had been exacerbated by a “very severe flu season”.

The current flu season, which arrived three to four weeks early this year, had led to the deaths of 22 people as of Friday last; 17 of those were aged 65 years and older.

The Taoiseach said the HSE and hospital management had been assured of government support in taking any additional emergency measures necessary to alleviate the situation.

He said this overcrowding is “not a new problem” and that there is a “long-term plan in place to deal with that long term problem”. Health Minister Harris also promised to open 199 new beds to help deal with the crisis.

The HSE also issued an apology to those affected by the overcrowding as it acknowledged that staff were working hard to cope with the increased demand. 

Labour’s Alan Kelly, meanwhile, has said it is time for the government to end the recruitment ban.

“This is the busiest time of year in our hospitals, this situation wasn’t unforeseen but the government and the HSE have refused to heed the very stark warnings,” he said.

The usual excuses on why this crisis is underway won’t wash with the public or with hospital staff. It is time for Minister Harris to come clean on when the recruitment ban will be suspended.

With reporting from Michelle Hennessy, Órla Ryan

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Sean Murray

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