The HSE has launched its 2020/21 Winter Plan, warning that this will be "the most challenging winter for our health services in living memory".
The plan, which runs until next April, seeks to improve patient care, while also keeping patients and staff safe in the middle of the current pandemic. An additional €600 million has been allocated to it and key initiatives in the plan include:
-Additional acute bed capacity
-Additional home support packages
-Additional HSE-procured private bed capacity.
According to HSE chief executive, Paul Reid, "this winter is going to be more difficult than any we've ever faced before".
"We are living differently, however we have planned differently and we have to take confidence in our Winter Plan. By ensuring agility and innovative healthcare measures, we can prioritise the health and wellbeing of our staff and the public, through the provision of healthcare pathways in the community and in our hospitals," he commented.
The plan proposes to open an additional 251 acute beds between October and December 2020, along with a further 232 acute beds between January and March 2021.
According to HSE chief operations officer, Anne O'Connor, the HSE will be focusing on the resumption of health services, "while preparing for the expected pressures associated with winter and delivering services in the context of the continuing presence of COVID-19".
"Guidance, new processes, and infrastructure, will be critical to supporting the resumption of service delivery," she said.
However, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has said it is disappointed with the plan.
"Facing into the first full winter of COVID-19, exhausted and worried after six months of non-stop pressure, our members believe that this moment demands more than temporary measures or clever ‘workarounds' to manage what promises to be a herculean challenge.
"Now is the time to seriously invest in long-term sustainable solutions for our health services. We must have a properly resourced service to keep our population well and to enable economic recovery," commented IMO president, Dr Padraig McGarry.
He said that the country is now "paying the price for repeatedly long-fingering solutions to the crises in respect of beds and recruitment, which have been festering for a decade".
"This is now directly restricting our ability to meet the health service demands of the COVID-19 era," he insisted.
The IMO said that the "new" beds being announced in the plan "are temporary beds in the system" and the proposed increase in ICU beds is "woefully inadequate".
It also highlighted the shortage of doctors, with 500 vacant consultant posts, half the number of public health specialists as other comparable countries, and "very few" incoming GPs to replace the 600 GPs who are due to retire over the coming years.
"There is no clarity in this plan as to how we can guarantee the extra consultants, public health specialists and GPs that we need over the coming months and years," the IMO said.
Concerns about staffing were also voiced by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), which said that the Winter Plan will "simply not work" without extra nursing and midwifery staffing.
"Extra hospital beds are much needed, but they are meaningless and dangerous if not properly staffed and resourced. This Winter Plan brings welcome investment, but absolutely zero clarity on how we will recruit and retain the staff to provide care," commented INMO general secretary, Phil Ni Sheaghdha.
According to INMO president, Martina Harkin-Kelly, nurses and midwives "will be scratching their heads over the lack of staffing detail in this plan".
"How can we set a target for extra beds without saying how many extra staff will be hired? Before the election, political parties committed to specific numbers of extra nurses and midwives. These staff are seeing their numbers depleted due to COVID infection, self-isolation, and childcare, yet there are no clear staffing commitments in this plan," she added.
The 2020/21Winter Plan can be viewed here.
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