Thursday, 31 March 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Health Services Staff
The Minister has accepted the reality that we have a real crisis in some of our hospitals and in healthcare generally with overcrowding. Some of this is related to Covid, but it also relates to waiting times, which the Minister has accepted are unacceptable. We also have a challenge in recruiting staff. There is a target of recruiting 10,000 personnel this year and the HSE states that we might recruit 5,500. I ask if the Minister will consider offering a job guarantee to all health graduates.
I thank the Deputy for the question. I was not sure from the question, as initially tabled, whether the Deputy was talking about medical graduates or health and social care graduates. I will try to cover all of them in line with his introductory remarks. As he has quite rightly said, recruitment of qualified health and social care graduates, medical graduates, and nursing and midwifery graduates is an absolute priority for me and for the Government. The HSE has a process in place to offer newly qualified nursing and midwifery graduates permanent positions managed through the hospital group and CHO networks. All nursing and midwifery graduates were offered permanent contracts in 2020 and 2021 and the same is planned for 2022.
The HSE provides opportunities to graduates on an annual basis for occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech and language therapist and dietetics directly through the colleges prior to their final examinations. Following interview, the successful applicants are placed on a panel. Any approved vacancies that arise are notified to this panel. Candidates indicate their interest in specific jobs, and this covers all locations and different care settings. Since the start of 2020, 1,123 of these posts have been filled. This is encouraging. A breakdown of these is as follows: occupational therapists, 356; physiotherapists, 354; speech and language therapists, 335; and dieticians, 78.
To date, there are 365 posts that have remained unfilled - we need to be cognisant of these - after being offered to the panels on multiple occasions. These unfilled jobs are across all settings and locations. I have asked the HSE and the Department to look further at this. Essentially, we still have fantastic qualified professionals on panels. We have several hundred jobs we are trying to fill. I am advised by the HSE that offers have been made on all of them. It is clearly not working in every case. We want to try to get those filled as well. If the Deputy likes, in my next response I can give him similar detail on the medical graduates.
The Minister might submit that to me or email me the full response. That is useful.
We have to be more proactive and energetic in engaging with health and social care professional graduates and medical graduates when they are graduating. We should have HSE officials working with them in their final years. That would be really important. A job guarantee for all professionals would be important. All of this is in the context of the crisis in hospitals.
The Minister will be aware that today there is a call from some healthcare trade unions and advocate groups that more needs to be done in terms of public health restrictions. Can I ask what is the current position in relation to public health measures, for example, mandatory mask wearing? I signalled I would ask the Minister this question because it is important for him to update this House on what advice he has received from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO. Will the Minister and the CMO attend the next meeting of the emergency department task force? The Joint Committee on Health has asked for a briefing from the CMO. My understanding is, as of today, that still has not been arranged. It is important that we hear what the message is.
I thank the Deputy for the questions. Our hospitals are under very significant pressure. As of this morning, we have 1,610 patients in hospital with Covid.
It is putting significant pressure on our hospitals, our patients, their families and our healthcare workers. I am conscious of, and fully understand, the calls that have been made through emergency medicine and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, this morning. Our workers - their members - are exhausted. This is yet another Covid wave. It has been going on for a long time, people are tired and the pressure is relentless.
I might be able to revert to the Deputy after his next supplementary question. In short, we have taken away the legal requirements around masks but the advice remains: if people are on public transport, they should wear masks; if people are visiting a healthcare or nursing home setting, they should wear masks; if people are in a crowded space indoors or outdoors; they should wear masks; and if people are more susceptible to Covid or are meeting others who are more susceptible, they should wear masks.
I wish to restate my position, which is that people should abide by the public health advice and wear masks in all of the settings where they have been asked to do so. Is there any advice from the CMO to return to the legal mandate for mask wearing or any other public health measure? Will the CMO engage with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health - that would be important - and the healthcare trade unions? As the Minister mentioned, there is frustration and fatigue in the healthcare system and there are many pressures on staff. We must do everything possible to relieve those pressures.
Any public health measure has to be underpinned by public health advice and it is important that we hear what that advice is, not from second or third parties, but directly from the public health experts themselves, which include the CMO. It is not unreasonable to ask the CMO to engage with the Opposition and the healthcare trade unions.
It is a reasonable request and one I will bring back to the Department. That is not a problem at all.
For various reasons, there is no advice coming to me at the moment in terms of the reimposition of any measure. One reason is that the sublineage BA.2, which accounts for approximately 95% of cases, is so contagious that using population-based measures to push the curve down would need to be very serious. The advice remains that masks should be worn, people should stay at home if they are symptomatic and, critically, people should get vaccinated or boosted. Approximately 700,000 people are now, or shortly will be, eligible for their booster shots. To give a sense of just how important that is, of the 1,610 people in hospital with Covid, approximately half are there because of Covid and fewer than half of those are fully protected. Only 370 of the 1,610 are there because of Covid and are also boosted.