Varadkar ‘throwing doctors and nurses under a bus’

Taoiseach criticised over remarks about flawed winter rostering of staff in hospitals

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 on Wednesday accused of “throwing doctors and nurses under a bus” after repeating his criticism of medical staff taking extended leave over Christmas.

The Taoiseach reiterated his claim that the winter trolley crisis was because of poor deployment of staff and resources over key periods, including Christmas. Speaking to journalists in Helsinki on his way to the European People’s Party (EPP) conference, Mr Varadkar insisted he was talking about what every business does, marshalling resources at peak times.

Asked if he would be issuing a directive to staff he said “I wish I had the authority to do that” but that was a matter for the Health Service Executive.

“Every business has a period of peak demand,” he said, citing the first weeks of September for those in education, budget time for those in politics and the summer months for those in tourism. “It makes sense if you are running your business well to always make sure that you match peak demand with peak resources.”


The comments were met with a chorus of criticism by Opposition parties.

The HSE said it did not collate information on rostering in hospitals throughout the State, and said such data would be retained by individual hospitals. The Department of An Taoiseach was not in a position to respond to questions about figures on which Mr Varadkar based his assertions.

Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman said the Taoiseach’s comments were disingenuous and the real reason for the trolley lists was eight years of mismanagement of the health services.

“Rather than deal with it he has thrown the nurses and doctors under the bus,” he said. “Every month the waiting lists are significantly worse that last year and the year before, despite record spending and large over-runs every year.

Staff shortages

“It has to do with staff shortages. If you look at Tallaght there are four emergency medicine consultants. In the UK an equivalent hospital would have 16 doctors working at that level.

“Elderly people should be treated in the community. Our hospitals are at between 97 per cent to 104 per cent capacity, instead of the optimum figure of 85 per cent.

“There are chronic staff shortages. In University College Hospital Galway, five of the 16 operating theatres are permanently closed because they cannot recruit theatre nurses.”

Sinn Féin spokesperson Louise O’Reilly said it was a disgraceful attempt to shift blame on to nurses and doctors.

“The Taoiseach takes his holidays and makes no apology for this. He is aware that this winter is going to once again break records and he is attempting to shift blame for this on to hard working staff? There aren’t enough nurses and doctors and this is obvious and that is what causes capacity problems.”

Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said it was a diversionary tactic.

She said problems such as staff shortages and capacity “need to be addressed rather than laying the blame at the door of staff. This is not just an issue at Christmas. The trolly crisis is year-round now.”

New year period

The Taoiseach was defended by Minister for Health Simon Harris who said staff worked extraordinarily hard but Mr Varadkar was correct.

“It is important that staffing levels across the hospital are sufficient to enable staff provide the services that patients require over the period. These include emergency departments, diagnostics services and community and primary care services.

“Ensuring this happens helps staff working in the health service to avoid a very significant surge at the start of the new year period, as well as benefiting patients. Hospital management are charged with ensuring that this takes place,” he said.

He pointed out that a key recommendation for this winter was the need for integrated winter plans, including “signed-off staffing rotas” for the winter and also for holiday periods.

He said they would form part of discussions that are ongoing.

A bed-capacity review conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute estimated a need for an additional 2,500 beds (including step-down beds) across the health services to fulfil capacity deficits.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times