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HSE's Winter Plan

Government's winter health plan labelled 'inadequate' by doctors' group

The €77-million plan aims to increase bed capacity, but questions have been raised about whether there will be additional staff.

THE GOVERNMENT’S PLAN for how the health service will respond to the challenging winter period, amid a growing number of Covid-19 hospital admissions, has been criticised as “inadequate” by an organisation representing doctors in Ireland.

The IMO said the plan would “force more work out of our exhausted doctors”, while opposition spokespeople questioned the lack of detail in the plan on how many healthcare professionals have been hired to staff new beds.

The €77-million plan aims to increase bed capacity, with 205 new acute beds, 275 community beds and 100 additional private community beds to be provided.

It aims to increase palliative care capacity from 221 beds to 276 beds.

Around 4,000 GP diagnostics per week is being provided for, as well as the provision of out of hours GP services. 

There will also be an information campaign for the public on managing winter viruses.

Publishing the plan earlier today, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly emphasised the importance of those who need medical attention to seek it “as soon as you feel unwell”. The Minister also urged “everyone” to consider alternatives to emergency departments: “such as your local pharmacy, GP or minor injury unit as appropriate”.

The Department of Health said the plan “aims to enable patients to be seen in the community wherever possible by by providing alternative care pathways outside the acute sector in line with Sláintecare”.

But the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) warned that hospitals and GPs are facing a traumatic winter and said the HSE’s Winter Plan was “inadequate” to meet those challenges. Dr Ina Kelly, President of the IMO, said:

This plan was launched at a time when we have only 21 ICU beds available in the country. Every doctor and healthcare worker is working beyond capacity right now and it is untenable that they are being asked to face into a winter with insufficient support.

Dr Kelly continued: “Covid has exposed the long-term cost of failing to invest in our health services. Our only response now seems to be to try to force more work out of our exhausted doctors.

“We have 700 vacant consultant posts meaning huge extra pressure on those consultants we do have. We have NCHDs working excessive and illegal hours putting them under enormous strain, and we have GP services facing unprecedented demand from patients. The capacity is simply not there to meet demand and it is not all Covid-related.”

New healthcare staff

Labour health spokesperson Duncan Smith welcomed the plan, but said more detail was needed on how many healthcare professionals would be hired to staff new beds being announced. 

The plan states that an additional 16,000 whole-time equivalent healthcare staff was approved for 2021, ”for a comprehensive range of new initiatives”. Just 10,716 were taken on, with an additional 3,200 staff recruited for vaccination and contact tracing.

This, coupled with the additional demand of a national vaccine programme, a third wave of the pandemic, and a cyber attack on the health service have resulted in a “revised resourcing response”. 

Smith said: “The plan published today points to extra bed capacity within our hospitals but we need to see details on the staffing numbers of these beds.

“There’s no point in increasing capacity if we don’t have the healthcare assistants, nurses and doctors to care for the patients in them. Indeed, we need to ensure that this plan is Covid-proofed. We know that the capacity will disappear when Covid gets into hospital because beds and wards close.”

INMO deputy general secretary designate Edward Mathews said:

“Today’s plan has been published in the backdrop of an incredibly difficult period for our health service — the number of people on trolleys is increasing, Covid cases and hospitalisations are on the rise and nearly one million people are on waiting lists.

“We need urgent action to use all available bed capacity in private hospitals to divert appropriate care from our acute hospitals.

Our acute hospitals are not just full, they are overcrowded, so surge capacity from the private sector to alleviate the pressure in hospitals across the country is imperative.

“The INMO will be seeking an urgent meeting with the Chief Executive of the HSE and his senior officials with regard to implementing this plan.”

You can read what was announced in last year’s plan here.

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