Check-up: How Minister for Health Leo Varadkar fared

Health continues to be a thorn in the Coalition’s side but less so than under his predecessor

Leo Varadkar: Wins kudos for his straight-talking. Photograph: The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar: Wins kudos for his straight-talking. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

Leo Varadkar has steadied a shaky health ship since becoming minister in July 2014 but he has struggled to make in-roads in tackling the deep-seated problems of the service.

Health continues to be a problem area for the Government, but less than it was under his predecessor, Dr James Reilly, whose lack of popularity was unrivalled.

Varadkar still wins kudos for his straight-talking and garnered widespread support when he came out as Ireland’s first openly gay minister.

However, he has yet to wield the big stick that is probably needed to effect major change in the system. With his time in office limited by the Government’s term, which cannot run beyond next spring, he has little time to make a lasting impact. The emphasis has been on avoiding any disasters that could dent the standing of the Government parties.

In this respect, things haven’t worked out very well. The Portlaoise scandal, while rooted in past events, put the health service in the spotlight in an unflattering way. So too did last winter’s trolley crisis, when overcrowding peaked at levels worse than anything seen during Reilly’s or Mary Harney’s time.

Despite spending large amounts of money, Varadkar still hasn’t got a handle on overcrowding; trolley numbers last month were up 40 per cent year-on-year. He has reduced the number of long waiters for hospital appointments and treatment, but only by outsourcing work to the private sector. It’s too early to say whether this improvement will stick.

While time is not on his side, the improving budget situation is. Varadkar has been able to fund extra staff and special initiatives, and the forthcoming budget is likely to see a further boost in health spending. This might to be enough to patch over the problems of the system until the next election but will hardly convince voters they enjoy the health service they expect.