Hospital waiting lists under strain from effect of Omicron, Cabinet warned

Emergency pressures and staff absences have made issue worse, Government told

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the health service had been left with a ‘mammoth’ task to deal with the backlog in non-Covid care. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Bloomberg

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the health service had been left with a ‘mammoth’ task to deal with the backlog in non-Covid care. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Bloomberg

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The Omicron wave has put hospital waiting lists under renewed pressure that may take years to address, the Government has been warned.

Ministers have been told that waiting lists, a perennial problem which has been exacerbated by the Covid crisis, were “adversely impacted” by emergency pressures and staff absences in recent weeks.

The Health Service Executive has undertaken to “intensify” efforts to address backlogs caused by staff absences due to Covid, which rose steeply after Christmas, according to a confidential memo given to Cabinet on Friday.

High-level plans were developed last year to keep waiting lists under control and, while Ministers were told that significant progress had been made on the issue, they were also warned that waiting lists have been adversely impacted by staff absences coupled with emergency pressures.

While the receding Omicron wave and changes to close contact rules mean staff absence has reduced, Cabinet was told that levels remain “significantly above” the norm.

On Sunday, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the health service had been left with a “mammoth” task to deal with the backlog in non-Covid care.

Cyberattack fallout

In a statement, the HSE said long waiting lists were a “legacy, systemic issue” and “it will take a number of years to bring waiting times down to the levels envisaged in Sláintecare.

“Waiting lists have been made worse by Covid-19 as we had to cancel so much scheduled activity to keep patients safe, and then further impacted by the damaging cyberattack this past summer.”

Meanwhile, advice on working from home where possible will be officially lifted on Monday, as part of a phased approach.

The Labour Employer Economic Forum will be convened this week, perhaps as soon as Monday, to discuss the return to work by February 28th. Senior sources in Government said this date was not being seen as a hard deadline, with hopes that a lot of work would be done at employer-worker level. The Government plans to have the general scheme of the right to request remote working ready this week.

Handling of pandemic

Elsewhere, a Government spokesman insisted no final decisions had been made regarding the structure of an inquiry or review into the State’s handling of the Covid pandemic. Reports on Sunday suggested an expert group rather than a commission of inquiry or special Oireachtas committee would be tasked with the review.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called for a full public inquiry.

There were 845 patients with Covid-19 in hospital on Sunday, an increase of nine on the previous day, including 79 people in intensive care units, up one. A further 4,731 PCR-confirmed Covid-19 cases were reported and 3,395 people registered a positive antigen test through the HSE’s online portal.

New figures released on Monday show there has been a surge in applications from schools to upgrade their buildings with better ventilation and outdoor play areas. Minister for Education Norma Foley has announced that almost 500 projects have been approved for upgrades worth €65 million under this year’s summer works scheme. This compares with 275 approved projects last year at a cost of €31 million.

The Department of Education also confirmed that Covid risk-mitigation measures – such as wearing masks – are to remain in schools until at least the end of the mid-term break on February 28th.

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