A widespread nurses’ strike across the country’s major accident and emergency departments is increasingly likely following a decision to extend a ballot for industrial action to hospitals plagued by emergency department overcrowding.
The ratcheting up of tensions between nurses and health service managers comes as Health Minister Leo Varadkar has been accused of going AWOL by Opposition TDs.
Mr Varadkar returns to Ireland today after a week-long holiday in the US during which time the trolley crisis unfolded. Yesterday, the trolley count reached 601 — the highest since the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) began its trolley watch initiative a decade ago.
Health department officials refused to clarify whether Mr Varadkar had cut his trip short on foot of the crisis or if he was scheduled to return today.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher said he found it “extraordinary” that Mr Varadkar had not commented on the matter, while Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams described the minister’s absence as “unacceptable”.
Last night, the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine (IAEM) said unless steps were taken to decant patients from emergency departments, it was inevitable that patients would die and others would have worse medical outcomes than they should have, resulting in longer stays and additional health service costs as well as avoidable grief and suffering.
Liam Doran, general secretary of the INMO, said they were seeking an immediate meeting of the emergency department taskforce to agree measures to alleviate the crisis, including opening more beds, recruiting additional nursing staff, and additional home care packages. The taskforce was convened last month by Mr Varadkar. However, Fergal Hickey, a consultant in emergency medicine and spokesman for the IAEM, said a previous taskforce published a report in 2007 “whose recommendations were by and large, not implemented”.
Dr Hickey said there was neither “the political will, nor management nous” to drive the solutions through.
Mr Doran said the INMO would meet with members from the Mater Hospital, St Vincent’s University Hospital, St James Hospital, Connolly Hospital, and Cork University Hospital to decide when to ballot members for industrial action. Balloting is under way among nurses in Limerick, University Hospital Galway, Our Lady of Lourdes Drogheda, and Midlands Regional Hospital in Mullingar. Mr Doran said industrial action would begin with a work-to-rule, escalating to withdrawal of labour, with the exception of emergency cover, if nurses’ concerns are not addressed.
Nurses at Beaumont Hospital have voted in favour of industrial action to commence on January 27. Yesterday, the hospital cancelled all planned surgery for the week, with the exception of cancer cases, as it attempts to get on top of its & emergency department overcrowding crisis. A national nurses’ protest is planned for next Wednesday.
A statement from the HSE last night said the pressure on emergency departments was “likely to continue in the weeks ahead as the seasonal surge in demand continues”.
It added that, to deal with the surge, all hospitals have invoked escalation plans “which include the opening of additional overflow areas, curtailing non-emergency surgery, providing additional diagnostics and strengthening discharge planning”. It said as an immediate result, hospitals yesterday “successfully reduced the total number of patients waiting for admission by 30% — from 513 to 354 by 2pm”.
Meanwhile, the Irish Medical Organisation warned that GP surgeries could be overwhelmed with extra patients if the crisis & continues.
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