Minister for Health warns flu outbreak to impact on trolleys

Leo Varadkar claims emergency department overcrowding low for time of year

A flu outbreak could impact on overcrowding in emergency departments, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

A flu outbreak could impact on overcrowding in emergency departments, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar said. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times


A flu outbreak is underway and could impact on overcrowding in hospital emergency departments, according to Minister for Health Leo Varadkar.

Mr Vardakar said the number of patients on trolleys today had dropped to the lowest level for this date for some years.

There were 256 people on trolleys on Thursday, of whom 141 had been waiting for over nine hours. This compared to 280 on the same date last year, he told the Oireachtas health committee.

The Minister claimed the numbers counted by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation was the lowest for this time of the year since 2005. Even when trolleys accommodated on wards were included in the overall figure, it was still lower than in the 2008-11 period.

This showed the measures taken to alleviate overcrowding had worked, he said, though there were huge variations between different hospitals. However, nothing was being taken for granted and there was no reason for complacency.

He said there was no single solution to the problem of emergency department overcrowding. Reducing delayed discharges was part of the picture but patient flow and management issues were also involved.

Mr Varadkar expressed concern about a doubling in the number of flu cases and said it was clear an influenza outbreak was underway.

HSE director general Tony O’Brien described the overcrowding situation as neither new nor unexpected and said reduced budgets had reduced the ability of community services to provide home help and nursing home places for patients.

Mr O’Brien warned there is insufficient funding to fund the upgrading of many public nursing homes, as required under new standards to be introduced by the Health Information and Quality Authority shortly. Currently, there are 30 large units providing over 2,500 beds where this funding is lacking.

Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher read from a letter from the daughter of a 76-year-old patient who spent over 50 hours on a trolley in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin over Christmas. The woman said her father received no hot food, with bread and yoghurt for breakfast and a sandwich for dinner. He was given no pillow, had to queue in the night for the single available toilet and had no privacy or washing facilities.

Mr Kelleher criticised the level of acceptance of “appalling” standards of treatment affecting people in hospital emergency departments.

He said the acceptance of inappropriate standards ran society-wide and was built into the system as a norm. Some hospitals “don’t want” sick patients because it hurts their budgets, he claimed.

Mr O’Brien rejected this assertion, saying there was “no way” hospitals were holding on to patients in order to maintain their budgets.

Irish-trained nurses working in the UK would be targeted to return to the HSE in a recruitment campaign to start shortly, he said.

Sinn Féin health spokesman Caomhghín Ó Caoláin described the situation as outrageous and pointed out that many more patients were accommodated on trolleys in wards, in addition to those in the emergency department.