Alan Kelly: HSE recruitment freeze ‘complete madness’

A three-month recruitment and overtime freeze ordered in the health services has been deemed “complete madness” at a time when there are already massive staff shortages.

Labour’s Alan Kelly exposed the HSE plan and said the ban would only worsen health budget problems and further impact on hospital waiting lists.

The new recruitment embargo emerged in a letter from the deputy director general and chief operations officer of the HSE and circulated across health services last week.

In it, health authorities blamed the move on “financial pressure in the system arising from the high levels of recruitment in 2018 and the consequential impact in 2019”.

However, the new health crisis took another turn yesterday as it was also claimed by Mr Kelly that Health Minister Simon Harris rang him and said he was unaware of the recruitment ban.

There is also confusion over the ban and which services it may impact.

The letter states that the embargo will not apply to hospitals with credible financial plans in place. After the three-month ban, “vigilance will be maintained to ensure we enter 2020 with a sustainable level of staffing”, the letter adds.

However, in a follow-up statement, Mr Harris said hiring in 2019 would go ahead. He said he had spoken to the HSE who had assured him that “recruitment restrictions will not be introduced unless hospital managers fail to outline their budget plans”.

“We allocated a €16bn budget to the health service and it is important that budgets are adhered to,” said Mr Harris.

The HSE said there must be a “continued focus on cost containment”. Decisions on recruitment rested with hospital and health care CEOs, it said, adding: “A derogation exists for all development posts and any restrictions will only apply where there is not a clear plan to live within available funding.”

Mr Kelly said the ban was “complete madness” when services lacked doctors or nurses and vast amounts of money went on agency staff.

And despite an extra €700m going into health last year, he said it was clear its 2019 budget was being used to cover overruns from 2018.

Meanwhile, Mr Harris faces pressure to answer questions at the Oireachtas Health Committee this week over whether he was in fact advised not to offer free repeat smear tests to women last April. There are suggestions the State’s chief medical officer, among others, did not support the move and the opposition blame the offer for the backlog of 80,000 women waiting up to 27 weeks for tests.

The Government is also likely this week to receive the PwC review into huge cost overruns in building the National Children’s Hospital. The bill has doubled to at least €1.4bn.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it would be published “without delay”.

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