Taoiseach urged to apologise to frontline health staff over Christmas leave ‘insult’

Leo Varadkar accused in Dáil of ‘vindictive attempt’ to blame doctors and nurses for hospital overcrowding

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, responding to a question from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, has said that nurses and doctors should not take holidays over the Christmas period to help ease hospital overcrowding. Video: Oireachtas TV


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was accused of engaging in a vindictive attempt to shift the blame for hospital overcrowding from the Government to frontline staff.

Sinn Féin foreign affairs spokesman David Cullinane made the claim in the Dáil on Wednesday as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin called on Mr Varadkar to apologise publicly to hospital personnel over his remarks to the Dáil on Tuesday.

The Taoiseach had attributed emergency department difficulties to staff being on holidays over the Christmas and new year period, including the first two weeks of January.

On Tuesday he was warned 100,000 people would have waited on trolleys by the end of this year and questioned about why a winter health plan had yet to be published this year instead of being agreed in the summer.

Mr Varadkar said that hospitals were effectively closed for seven of the 12 days of Christmas and New Year between December 22nd and January 3rd next.

Mr Martin said the Taoiseach insulted hospital staff working at the frontline. He referred to Mr Varadkar’s remarks that winter plans for the past 10 to 15 years had been useless, and pointed out that they included plans the Taoiseach had published when he was minister for health as well as others from Fine Gael ministers.

He accused the Taoiseach of effectively saying that staff did not turn up.

“You declared in a narky response that it was all the nurses’ fault, it was the consultants’ fault. It was classic ‘blame someone else’,” Mr Martin said.

“When is the apology going to come and when will the winter plan be published?” Mr Martin asked.

Mr Cullinane said nurses and doctors’ leave was not the problem. “It does not contribute to hospital overcrowding. The problem is capacity in our public health services.”

Cabinet holidays

Labour party leader Brendan Howlin said the Taoiseach should not blame health staff for taking annual leave to which they were entitled.

He pointed out that staff rosters were a management issue, which “should have been addressed by constructive engagement with unions, and not by abusing staff on the airwaves or in the House”.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith sharply criticised the pay and conditions for hospital nurses. She said industrial action is a real possibility as nurses ballot on the issue.

Ms Smith said that if the Government could not deal now with nurses’ low pay and with ambulance service issues, “then I suggest the Cabinet doesn’t take a Christmas holiday and works hard over the holiday period to ensure these issues are settled”.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said efforts were continuing to engage with nursing unions on pay, recruitment and retention of staff.

He also said it was wrong to accuse the Taoiseach of blaming doctors or nurses. He was speaking on behalf of Mr Varadkar who is in Finland for talks on Brexit.

“The Taoiseach didn’t blame doctors or nurses. He said it was appropriate that there should be a critical mass of doctors and nurses on duty, and support services including laboratories, at the most challenging time for the health services,” Mr Creed said.