Lives not at risk by scaling back of air ambulance service – Varadkar

Government recognises issue of personnel retention in Air Corps, says Taoiseach

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: ‘They are being better resourced than they ever have been and it’s important to point out that just five or six years ago, there was no air ambulance at all in Ireland.’ Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: ‘They are being better resourced than they ever have been and it’s important to point out that just five or six years ago, there was no air ambulance at all in Ireland.’ Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed confidence new measures will ensure the Air Corps will staff for air ambulance services as he insisted lives were not being put a risk by the temporary scaling back of the existing service.

Mr Varadkar said he and the government recognised that there was an issue with recruiting and retaining personnel in the Air Corps but moves were afoot to address the problem and he expected to see it resolved in the near future.

A shortage of pilots has forced the Air Corps to scale back the emergency air ambulance service it provides the HSE from its base in Athlone with the service being reduced by four days a month until the end of February.

Meanwhile, the Irish Community Rapid Response Air Ambulance (ICRR) service based in Rathcoole in Co Cork will send its back -up helicopter to Athlone to provide cover four days a week until the issue is resolved at the end of February.

‘Better resourced’

Mr Varadkar said today air ambulance services in Ireland are better funded now than they ever were, given that there are two such helicopters in operation whereas just five years ago, there was no such emergency services.

“They are being better resourced than they ever have been and it’s important to point out that just five or six years ago, there was no air ambulance at all in Ireland and now we have two, one based in Athlone and one based in Cork.

“Notwithstanding that, there are still challenges, particularly in terms of recruiting staff and because of the need to train new pilots for a four days a month, the Athlone helicopter, run by the Defence Forces, will be off duty.

“But we do have a solution in place to provide cover – the auxiliary back-up helicopter from Cork will move to the Midlands and also there will be back up from the Irish Coastguard and its helicopters.”

Mr Varadkar said the Irish Defence Forces were not unique in trying to retain pilots as other air forces in the western world were experiencing similar challenges as military-trained pilots opt to leave for the private sector.

“We are dealing with it and are putting in place a retention bonus for pilots that stay in the Air Corps – there are now people in the Air Corps who are now coming back in from airlines – that wasn’t allowed in the past.

“We also have new recruits and new cadets who are being trained but in order to train them we need to take the helicopter off for about four days a month for the next four months – they will be back filled by the helicopter from Cork.”

International shortage

Mr Varadkar said he believes the scaling back of the Air Corps air ambulance service to be replaced four days a month by the ICRR ambulance would not result in “any risk to life”.

And he said the Government was committed to the Defence Forces generally, which this year will receive over €1 billion in funding, and the emergency services including the Irish Coastguard and the National Ambulance Service.

He said that internationally there is a shortage of both pilots and paramedics but he was confident that the Government would be able to manage the situation to ensure full continuity off air ambulance services in the country.

Meanwhile an ICRR spokesman told The Irish Times the decision to transfer its relief helicopter from Rathcoole to Athlone four days a month would not have an impact on the service it can provide in Munster and South Leinster.

“it’s not a problem for us - four days a month is manageable in that the deal we have with our contractors, Sloane Helicopters is to provide a relief helicopter which is sitting at our base in Rathcoole,” he said.

“If we use our back-up helicopter for Athlone, Sloane Helicopters will still provide us with a back up helicopter – we are providing the helicopter crew and the National Ambulance Service is providing paramedics to staff it.”

No talks have taken place to date on who will pay for the back-up helicopter being sent to Athlone. “We haven’t discussed anything yet – the priority for us was to help them fill the gap in the system,” said the ICRR spokesman.

The ICRR began operations on July 30th looks set to carry out close to 200 missions by the end of November and is well on its way to carrying on in excess of its annual target of 500 missions by August 2020.