Doctors have reacted with cynicism to health minister James Reilly’s promise to proactively address Ireland’s junior doctor crisis just hours before a major international probe into the issue was launched.
The Irish Medical Organisation’s director of industrial relations, Steve Tweed, made the claim yesterday after the European Commission confirmed that it is set to re-examine the Department of Health’s handling of the issue.
Speaking at the Oireachtas Health Committee meeting on Thursday, Dr Reilly said any situation where junior doctors have to work excessive and potentially dangerous hospital shift lengths — sometimes ranging up to 100 hours per week — was “immoral” and “perverse”.
Dr Reilly insisted the Government was redoubling its efforts to address the situation, and said he has ordered an independent report into the matter later this year.
However, while the IMO said any progress on the issue would be welcome, it insisted the minister’s sudden “conversion” to addressing an issue he has “ignored” was simply an attempt to protect the Government’s image.
“You have to be cynical when you see the lack of action [in terms of reducing junior doctor working hours] by this minister since he took office, not to mind when you realise his words followed hot on the heels of a stinging criticism of the Government on this issue by the EC,” Mr Tweed said.
“The IMO provided evidence to the Oireachtas Health Committee in Oct 2011 and again earlier this year, highlighting the illegal and dangerous working hours. The minister did nothing.
“The ‘perversity’ here is the minister’s pretence he actually cares about non-consultant hospital doctor working hours and conditions. He is yet again attempting to play for time, but the patience of our members and that of the EC has run out.”
The dispute developed as the EC confirmed taht it is launching a probe into the potentially dangerous working hours of Ireland’s junior doctors.
The international body said the investigation is being organised after complaints were made about European Working Time Directive breaches in recent weeks.
EWTD rules state that no one should work more than 48 hours per week. However, junior doctors work an average of 63 hours per week, and up to 100 hours per week in some cases.
In a letter sent to the IMO, the EC said it will send officials to Ireland to find out if planned moves to resolve the issue are working.
It said the investigation will have “a particular emphasis” on the first half of this year— a period the IMO said has seen the junior doctor problem continuing unabated.
The EC has previously warned the Department of Health repeatedly over the past two decades that the country is failing to stay within the EWTD’s shift-length caps when it comes to junior doctors.
As a result of the situation, last year the Department confirmed plans to reduce the lengths of shifts and to fully comply with the EWTD rules by the end of next year. However, there is concern any progress on the issue has stalled in recent months.
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