Healthcare workers 'abandoned' during schools closures, committee told

Nurses and doctors warn burnout and shortages are impacting patient care 
Healthcare workers 'abandoned' during schools closures, committee told

INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha sharply criticised the vaccine rollout, saying the initial doses for healthcare workers were not sent out in an organised manner, and did not focus on known hotspots for Covid-19 transmission. File picture: Leah Farrell/

Healthcare workers with children were abandoned when schools were closed, the Oireachtas Health Committee was told on Tuesday, as failures in the vaccine roll-out were also highlighted by nurses’ and doctors’ unions.

The impact of staff shortages for patients has been laid bare by the pandemic, the committee heard from the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) and the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA).

Anthony Owens, industrial director at the IMO, said there were now 728 consultants roles either empty or filled by a locum doctor.

An estimated 2,000 extra medics, including public health doctors and mental health specialists, are needed to meet growing demand, he said.

“No substantial and systemic action has been taken to date to address the crisis in recruitment and retention of medical expertise across our health system,” he warned. 

As a consequence, our waiting lists have grown and stress and burnout is prevalent among the medical workforce."

The current approach to recruitment is more like “a removal strategy” than anything else, he said.

The majority of nurses and midwives are women, and general secretary of the INMO Phil Ní Sheaghdha was highly critical of how school closures were handled.

Closures are not the problem, she explained: “What we’re saying is you can’t make that decision and then abandon the workforce that you are calling essential workers and requiring of them to turn up to work and provide no Plan B.” 

Her colleague, Tony Fitzpatrick, said the union wrote to the ministers for education, health, and children to ask about this, but did not get any response.

Ms Ní Sheaghdha sharply criticised the vaccine roll-out, saying the initial doses for healthcare workers were not sent out in an organised manner, and did not focus on known hotspots for Covid-19 transmission.

She said: “Instead, the rollout commenced in a haphazard manner, not focused on the locations or workplaces with the highest infections or geographically bordering areas with high community infection.

Put simply, the vaccines' initial distribution seemed to be based on the HSE's administrative areas, rather than by where the virus was most prevalent.” 

She told Senator Martin Conway that hospitals in Clare and Limerick did not get enough vaccine doses in the early stages compared to the level of disease in those areas.

Vice-president with the IHCA Gabrielle Colleran said it had been estimated that consultant numbers should be increased by 51% by 2028 to meet patient demand.

Dr Colleran warned that Irish doctors working abroad have no incentive to return due to a much-criticised two-track pay deal in place since 2012.

“As long as you are paying two people different wages to do the same job, they will not come home,” she said.

Dr Colleran gave a personal insight into the stresses of the long days, saying she recently came home at 9.15pm to find her daughter waiting with some tricky Irish homework.

“I just burst into tears, I had nothing left to give,” she said.

Meanwhile, Siptu, which represents healthcare assistants, paramedics, cleaners, and other workers, complained their members were excluded.

Siptu health division organiser Kevin Figgis said: “For these unsung heroes not to have their voice heard in our national parliament is absolutely disgraceful and sadly suggests that workers are not all in this together.”

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