Thursday, 18 November 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
76. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if qualified members of the Defence Forces are available to help medical teams in hospitals, to operate additional ambulances or to help with care of the elderly in their homes given the additional demands that are placed on staff due to Covid-19 and other illnesses. [56753/21]
Is there any availability of qualified members of the Defence Forces to help medical teams in hospitals, to operate additional ambulances or to help with the care of the elderly in their homes in light of the extra demands that are placed on staff due to Covid and other illnesses? Hospitals in Tralee, Killarney, Kenmare, Bantry, Cahersiveen and Listowel are under immense pressure.
While the Defence Forces is not the primary response agency for non-security-related emergencies, as defined in the framework for major emergency management, it provides the fullest possible assistance to the appropriate lead Department in the event of a natural disaster or emergency situation in its aid to civil authority role. In this regard, the full spectrum of Defence Forces personnel and equipment, commensurate with operational requirements, is made available for deployments, within current means and capabilities, as the need arises.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a joint task force was established to co-ordinate the Defence Forces contribution to the whole-of-government Covid-19 response. It has the authority to draw together, in a joint manner, the contribution of all of the elements of the Defence Forces – Army, Air Corps, Naval Service and the Reserve. This was provided for in a Defence Forces regulation signed by and under my authority as Minister for Defence.
The priority of the Defence Forces joint task force from the beginning has been to provide support to the HSE, while retaining at all times a contingent capacity to provide aid to the civil power support. Since March 2020, Defence Forces personnel have provided significant supports in response to the Covid-19 crisis, with in excess of 112,000 personnel days assistance being deployed and more than 22,700 instances of Defence Forces vehicles being utilised, in the deployment of an extensive range of supports from the Defence Forces.
The broad range of supports that the Defence Forces have provided to the HSE, as co-ordinated by the joint task force during the Covid-19 pandemic, include the operation of the Covid-19 testing centre at the Aviva Stadium, contact tracing supports and a range of non-clinical and administrative supports in a number of residential care facilities. Defence Forces personnel have also provided assistance to the National Ambulance Service through ambulance and crew supports along with tele-triage supports. The Defence Forces will continue to provide surge support to the health services through bolstering their capacity and providing them with the additional resilience needed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The short answer to Deputy Healy-Rae's question is "Yes", but that is already happening. The Defence Forces have helped the HSE in multiple areas, giving thousands of person hours to support a wide range of healthcare activities.
It all depends on what constitutes an emergency. The consultant body of University Hospital Kerry has serious concerns and is worried about the safety of patients in hospital. It says it has lost confidence in the ability of the HSE locally, regionally and nationally to provide safe, timely and effective care of patients. Our hospital is in crisis since the second week in September, with elective surgery cancelled, high numbers of patients on trolleys in emergency departments, staff shortages and staff burnout.
We have no surgical day ward and the acute medical assessment unit is closed more often than it is open. We do not believe the management at either group level or national level recognises or acknowledges the seriousness of the current crisis. At times, we have been left without ambulance cover in our county for days because an ambulance is directed to Cork and then finishes up going to Waterford and on to Clonmel. What happens is that our county does not have adequate cover.
I appeal to the Minister. I do not know if the Government has intervened in Tralee already but, if it has, it needs to provide more assistance because our medical service is not up to scratch.
The Defence Forces are currently providing support to the HSE, as co-ordinated by the joint task force during the Covid-19 crisis, in three areas: on testing, 26 Defence Forces personnel are deployed on a daily basis to test centres throughout the country; on tracing, 20 lines are serviced by 40 personnel, with 20 in both Kilkenny and Donegal; and on tenting, 42 Defence Forces tents are deployed to both testing and vaccination centres throughout the country. This will increase from 19 November and 22 November, respectively, in regard to the following: on tenting, 40 Defence Forces personnel will be deployed on a daily basis to testing centres throughout the country, which requires a commitment of about 80 personnel; and on tracing, the 30 lines in Dublin, Kilkenny and Donegal will require a commitment of about 65 personnel.
What we are trying to do is provide resources to the HSE so it can focus its resources on hospitals, for example, in Kerry, that might be under pressure. On the idea that we could effectively staff our hospitals with Defence Forces personnel, I do not think that is realistic. We have had a number of occasions when Defence Forces personnel have been asked to help out with residential care facilities, for example, in terms of temporary staffing pressures, and the Defence Forces, as ever, have responded professionally to that kind of work. Of course, in terms of moving patients around, the Defence Forces have also been helpful in supporting the ambulance service, when asked. However, let us not forget that the Defence Forces are there to offer assistance when the HSE is under significant pressure. They are not there to run a health service.
I again thank the Minister. We have a crisis in Kerry. I hear what the Minister is saying about testing but people can die from other causes as well as the coronavirus, and elderly people are vulnerable. When I requested home help for a 91-year-old woman, they told me she may not get it for six months. People cannot get home help at weekends or on bank holidays. I am coming to the Minister in desperation. The thing has got out of hand completely. I have already raised all of these issues with the HSE and in the House with the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, but we do not seem to be getting anywhere. We have the greatest of respect for the Defence Forces and they are highly respected throughout the community, but people are losing their lives in Kerry because of the inaction of the HSE. I call on the Minister to deploy whatever manpower or womanpower he can to help out in this exceptional time.
I understand that hospital services in Kerry are under pressure, as they are in other parts of the country too. We are living through a pandemic that is extraordinarily demanding of the health service. That is why we are planning to spend €22 billion or €23 billion on healthcare next year in terms of increasing staff numbers, capital investment and resources. Of course, the Defence Forces are there in emergency situations to help the HSE when they can, but they are not going to solve the challenges in every hospital, and it is important to say that. For example, there are currently 24 medical officers or doctors in the Defence Forces out of an establishment of 26 and, of these, only 14 would in theory be able to provide the kind of support the Deputy seems to be suggesting in hospitals. The Defence Forces, of course, have to look after their own personnel needs as well. They are there to supplement and support the HSE when necessary but, ultimately, the core challenge here is for the HSE and our hospital service to respond to the extraordinary demand that is there.