Credit: Gemma Brolly

Hospital Crisis: Policy of closing A&Es in local hospitals blamed  

A total of 18 protests have taken place across Ireland urging the HSE to take urgent action to cut overcrowding as part of the National Hospital Campaign’s Day of Action on Saturday.

The protests, organised by campaign groups and bereaved relatives, took place in Limerick, Cork, Galway, Mayo, Kildare, Antrim, and a number of other counties. In Limerick, a record-breaking crowd of 11,000 people took to the streets – making it the “largest health protest ever seen” in the county according to organisers.

In Cork, upset protesters gathered outside Cork City University Hospital’s (CUH) Emergency Department to protest the current overcrowding crisis that is impacting hospitals across the country. 

Organiser of the demonstration, Aontú’s Becky Kealy, as reported by Cork Echo, told passers by that it was hard to comprehend how the HSE has not connected hospital overcrowding with A&E closures in smaller hospitals:  

“There is unrest and anger because of what is going on in our health service. At present, the overcrowding is putting people’s lives at risk. This is purely down to the Government not funding the service adequately. The constant cuts that our hospitals have been taking year on year – for example, in the last 15 years, the Government has closed down eight A&Es,” she said.

“I just can’t fathom how the HSE can’t join up the dots between hospital overcrowding and shutting down this many A&Es in the last eight years.”

The Aontú representative for Cork North West urged the government to listen to the frustration and concerns expressed by Irish people, and to ensure A&Es are safe for patients and staff.

“What we are asking is for the services to be funded properly, we need the doctors and nurses to be paid properly so that they don’t emigrate. 

“So many have emigrated because they are under enormous stress, they’re not being paid properly, they are understaffed, under-resourced and they don’t have the beds. We need to put the people and their lives first,” she said.

Credit: Becky Kealy

Similar action took place in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, on Saturday 21st January as part of the Day of Action. People attended a protest at the Bus Bay, above Letterkenny Hospital New A&E entrance on the Kilmacrennan Road.

Mary T. Sweeney, Chairperson of the Letterkenny Hospital Campaign, highlighted the latest HSE figures which show Letterkenny University Hospital’s (LUH) A&E continues to battle severe overcrowding and record attendance levels.

“On Tuesday this week Letterkenny was second only to Cork University as worst affected hospital in the country with 54 patients waiting on trolleys,” she said. Ms Sweeney said the message of protestors was “crystal clear” as she described a “deep anger and frustration across Ireland at the constant chaos in our failing health service”.

The Donegal representative continued: “This crisis has not happened by accident. There is a capacity crisis in the A&E system nationally, largely because the HSE has closed down many of the step down beds and A&Es in recent years at a time when the population of the state is growing. It just does not make sense. 

“The HSE cut 6,000 hospital beds since 2008. There are 30% too few GPs in the state and we are short of 700 consultants. We are short of 200  ICU beds. Pay and conditions for staff are so bad that many are voting with their feet and leaving the HSE altogether and sadly many are leaving the country. We need to stop this brain drain of our experienced doctors and nurses and experienced healthcare staff. This downward spiral in our health service needs to be stopped now.”   

Ms Sweeney said a “change of attitude” is now needed on behalf of the Department of Health and the HSE.

“This can only be achieved by shouting as loudly as possible, all together. And in Donegal, we need to shout at least twice as loud,” she said. 

“There are signs of change coming. This winter’s chaos, which is costing hundreds of lives, needs to be a turning point in the development of a functioning health system in Ireland”.

Protests were also seen in county Kildare – with large crowds gathering outside Naas General Hospital to protest against overcrowding. Sinn Fein TD for Kildare North, Réada Cronin, said the Day of Action was about showing “solidarity” with “hard-pressed” healthcare workers. 

Signs were held aloft – with one sign condemning “decades of failure” at the hands of the leadership of current health minister Stephen Donnelly, and former health ministers Simon Harris, Leo Varadkar, and Micheál Martin.

“Thank you to all our frontline staff who are there for our town and community – from the people of Naas,” another sign read.

Meanwhile, in Limerick, protestors took to the city streets calling for an end to the trolley crisis, as crowds heard that the march marked the beginning of “a campaign of people power” that will force change in healthcare across the MidWest.

“For fourteen years, we have watched as they have closed our A&Es, robbed us of hospital beds and watched our people die on trolleys. Well, no more. The time has come for change because we deserve better. Our health system deserves better. Our health service deserves enough workers so that it can operate properly,” organiser and bereaved relative Mike Daly said to applause.

Credit: Mike Daly / UHL protest

The HSE has said it is struggling to cope with the high level of viral infections including RSV, Covid-19 and influenza circulating this winter. While it has said it has developed a ‘comprehensive plan’ to support acute and community services this winter to respond to ‘anticipated high levels’ of emergency attendances, one bereaved relative told Gript that the problem of overcrowding is a long-standing one – and not something which has emerged this winter.

Speaker at the Limerick protest, Melanie Sheehan Cleary, who lost her daughter Eve in 2019 after the 21-year-old waited 17 hours on a trolley at UHL, said

“People shouldn’t be in those conditions. We have our government talking about a ‘winter plan’ – but it isn’t a winter problem. This has been going on for years now. It’s been going on since 2009. The day Eve was there [in 2019] they broke a record for trolley figures”.

Protests also took place in the North of Ireland, with the Causeway Hospital Campaign vowing to “make their mark” during the National Day of action – while Stormont remains in a state of collapse.

Large crowds turned out in Coleraine in County Derry, where Causeway Hospital Campaign Spokesperson and Aontú Deputy Leader Gemma Brolly addressed protestors.

“Today we send a very strong message to those at the top, Stormont, Westminster, top management – we will no longer endure this. Today we stand in solidarity with many other hospitals, from Cork to Coleraine to say enough is enough,” she said.

“The past few years have seen unprecedented levels of human suffering, people dying on trolleys and waiting lists. Our nurses are suffering, our people are suffering, and yet the silence from our well paid absentee MLAs is completely deafening.” 

Credit: Gemma Brolly

Ms Brolly said that through speaking to  hospital nurses, district nurses, midwives, and others on the frontline, it is clear that staff feel their vital work is “underpaid and undervalued”.

“Morale has never been so low,” she said. “We are not just here supporting the hospital itself, we are here to support those who support our hospitals, district nurses, hospital diversion, care staff. The lives of the people of Causeway are in the hands of our underpaid and understaffed frontline hospital teams, and they are the ones getting hammered while our MLAs get paid to sit on their hands”.

Credit: Gemma Brolly

Meanwhile, Minister for Law Reform James Browne, admitted that the trolley crisis in Irish hospitals is not acceptable. 

 “These patients who are on trolleys should not be going through what they’re doing,” he told told RTE’s Saturday with Colm Ó Mongáín programme 

“Nobody can stand over it, not the Government, not the HSE and not the healthcare workers,” he said. 

Mr Browne said that an investment of €24 billion in the health and social care budget in 2023 would help to alleviate the pressures on hospitals over the next year.

“What’s necessary is the increase of capacity in our hospitals right across the country,” said the minister, adding: “We’ve seen a deficit of investment for a significant amount of time and we are now seeing record investment in that capacity right across the country.”

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