HSE will ‘remain neutral’ on abortion debate, says health chief

Committee hears of HSE staff member using official paper to correspond on issue

HSE director general Tony O’Brien said while people working in the health services were entitled to have views, they could not use the corporate identity to advance any position. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

HSE director general Tony O’Brien said while people working in the health services were entitled to have views, they could not use the corporate identity to advance any position. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The HSE will take no position in the forthcoming referendum on abortion and will remain neutral, its director general has said.

Tony O’Brien told the Oireachtas health committee that a member of staff who used official notepaper to send correspondence to Oireachtas members urging opposition to repeal of the Eighth Amendment had been met with and taken through the appropriate procedures.

He said while people working in the health services were entitled to have views, they could not use the corporate identity to advance any position.

In the letter, the health professional urges Oireachtas members “to resist the pressure to yield to populism and specious arguments, and to give your support for retention of the constitutional protection of the unborn”.

It further claims that “allowing maternal distress and mental illness as an excuse for abortion, is a proven formula for abortion-on demand [STET]up to birth”.

Mr O’Brien said the HSE did not take any position in referendums or electoral matters.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said the health service should remain impartial.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith was among those to criticise the letter, saying she had asked Mr Harris to look into the matter and “and state clearly that professionals in positions of authority should not try to use their positions to convey the impression that their personal views are in any way representative of the health services or the HSE”.

Meanwhile, Mr O’Brien said high rates of influenza would continue for a number of weeks with continuing pressure on hospitals.

Mr O’Brien told the Oireachtas committee that a key challenge for most hospitals was the increasing requirement for isolation of patients to ensure that infection control issues were managed appropriately.

Isolation facilities

“The hospital system does not have sufficient isolation facilities or single rooms and as a result patients can wait for significant periods for suitable accommodation.”

“A key challenge this year has been the sustained increase in influenza cases with associated challenges in terms of providing appropriate isolation and consequential delays in discharge of patients to home and other community settings. At its peak this year the influenza rate was higher than last year and unlike last year, when it decreased sharply, it is expected that the high rates will continue for a number of weeks with continued pressure on hospitals.

“There have been two strains of flu present which has meant that the isolation requirements are more complex and most hospitals have had to create cohort wards to ensure that there is no cross contamination.”

Mr O’Brien said a further challenge this year was the incidence of influenza in nursing homes which had prevented new admissions from hospitals during January.

“As of last week it was estimated that over 200 beds were out of use due to influenza cases in nursing homes. It is welcome and important that nursing homes are observing the national guidance in relation to infection control but in the short term it means that there are fewer discharges from hospitals.”

Mr Harris said that both considerable reform in the health service as well as additional capacity would be needed to reduce the unacceptable numbers of people on trolleys in hospitals.

He said the recent review of capacity had shown 2,600 additional beds would be needed by 2031, adding some of these must be front-loaded.