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A season of soundbites

Vaccination uptake among politicians has been predictably low, and with capital to gain as the health sector lurches into further crises, there has been unprecedented pressure on the national airwaves and print media, which are gainfully trying to accommodate the deluge of soundbites requiring communication.

They have formed a disorderly queue.

Speaking to The Irish Times Inside Politics Podcast, Minister of State John Halligan put forward the suggestion of “disbanding” the HSE, something the Government that he is a part of has already pledged to undertake. Minister Halligan did acknowledge that this was not an immediate solution to the hospital overcrowding crisis.

Meanwhile, as the crisis deepened, Labour TD Alan Kelly came forth as the party’s Spokesperson on Health, a portfolio he has held since June 2016.

Judging from his Twitter feed, much of Deputy Kelly’s focus during December was on his Bill aimed at boosting craft-beer tourism by allowing breweries and distilleries to sell their products on their premises.

In fact in mid-December, Deputy Kelly re-tweeted a tweet by the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, strong lobbyists on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill (see David Lynch’s feature on pages 4-5), which described the Labour TD’s draft legislation as “just one highlight in a great year for Irish beer”. It truly is a funny old world.

It should, of course, be pointed out that Deputy Kelly is also Labour’s Spokesperson on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, areas of Irish life that yield political capital most days of the year.

Elsewhere, on 29 December, Fianna Fáil’s Spokesperson on Health Deputy Billy Kelleher, took aim at Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar, the favourite to take over as Fine Gael party leader. Deputy Kelleher declared that nearly 12 months on from the start of General Election 2016, promises made by Minister Varadkar regarding new ambulances had fallen flat.

Perhaps Deputy Kelleher was just trying to do the State some service, calling out the Fine Gael politician as the “Minister for photo-calls and soundbites”.

Soon the news agenda will move on; the soundbites will follow.

Minister Harris has been talking tough in public too. But perhaps not quite so tough in private. Documents obtained by journalist Ken Foxe show that a strongly-worded letter from Minister Harris to HSE Director General Mr Tony O’Brien on expectations for the Winter Initiative was binned in favour of a more sanitised missive.

Political commentators say Minister Harris is facing a make-or-break period of his career. But that does not matter a jot. In the calm after the storm, what Minister Harris does or does not do in the coming months will have huge consequences for the health sector in the next number of years.

No-one needs reminding on the importance of addressing the deep problems facing Irish healthcare, its patients and staff. But then again, perhaps they do.

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