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Varadkar doubles down on comments about medics not taking holidays over new year period

The Taoiseach said he didn’t understand why the comments were deemed controversial, as services must attempt to meet demand.

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

LEO VARADKAR HAS doubled down on comments he made about doctors and nurses not taking annual leave over the Christmas and new year period.

Speaking about the demands placed on the health service at this time of year, the Taoiseach yesterday said consultants should not take holidays in the first week of the year, particularly those who work in emergency departments, and that nurses should not take leave in the first two weeks of January.

The remarks were criticised by some, who felt it was not Varadkar’s place to tell medical staff when to take holidays. He has acknowledged that he doesn’t have the authority to dictate when employees take leave but defended his stance. 

The Taoiseach told reporters in Helsinki today that he didn’t understand why the comments were controversial, saying he was simply pointing out that services must attempt to meet demand.

Varadkar said: “People will always misrepresent what you say and that often happens when you speak the truth in politics…

“Every business, every industry, every service has a period of peak demand.

“If you’re working in retail, it’s the week running up to Christmas. If you’re working in education, it’s the first week or two of September. If you’re in politics, it’s Budget week and the few weeks around the Budget. If you’re in tourism, it’s the summer period and the bank holidays.

“And it makes sense if you’re running your service or your business well to always make sure that you match peak demand with peak resources.

So we know peak demand happens in our health service in the first two weeks in January, therefore it makes sense that the minimum number of staff should be on leave during that period.
No bed should be closed because people are on leave. The emergency department and medical consultants should be there. The surgeons can take their holidays during that period because most of the operations get cancelled anyway.

“So it’s a question of meeting peak demand with peak resources, and that’s the norm across industry, the norm across services. It should be the norm across the health service as well. It shouldn’t be a controversial comment to say that when we have peak demand, when patients need our staff most, they should be there.”

The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has warned of a “perfect storm” that will see over 1,000 people on hospital trolleys this winter. 

‘Entirely predictable’

Varadkar said the annual new year strain on services is “entirely predictable”, noting that between 22 December and 3 January about seven days are bank holidays or fall on the weekend.

He said, during this period, hospitals essentially operate on “a skeleton staff”, stating: “Radiology departments don’t work at full throttle, laboratories don’t work at full throttle.

So patients come in, they don’t get their full tests, they don’t get their diagnosis, they don’t get their treatments. The numbers add up and up and up, and guess what happens in the first week in January?

“So what I’m saying is, that needs to change this year, we need to have more activity in the hospitals during that period, during the holiday period. And of course staff would be paid for that and of course staff would get their annual leave entitlement, but you do need to match your resources with your demand.”

Varadkar added that a “huge amount of additional resources” have been put into the health service in the last two years. He said the service has 1,500 more nurses than this time two years ago, 250 more beds than 12 months ago, and 10,000 doctors overall – more than ever before.

He said the additional resources alone are not enough, that they need to be properly managed and deployed. 

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Órla Ryan

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