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‘Tis the season to be uncertain

By Paul Mulholland - 25th Oct 2022

HSE Winter Plan

Uncertainty. It is a word we have all become very used to over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially at this time of year. It was employed again at the launch of the HSE Winter Plan 2022/2023 on 11 October. 

According to HSE Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry: “This coming winter – the third winter we have with Covid-19 – carries much uncertainty. The combination of Covid-19 and seasonal viruses, such as influenza, has the potential to create much pressure on a healthcare system that has endured almost three years of pandemic pressures.” 

Dr Henry said the HSE’s response has been to create “additional much-needed capacity and to diversify access to healthcare and reduce reliance on hospitals”, in addition to vaccination. 

Funding of just over €169 million has been allocated to implement the plan, which will include the recruitment of 608 posts across a range of services. 

Among the plan’s priorities is the delivery of additional acute and community beds and increasing staffing capacity in line with the safe staffing and skill-mix framework. 

The HSE also intends to extend the opening hours of a number of local injury units during the winter period. 

Alternative patient pathways will be implemented to help reduce the number of presentations and admissions to hospital and improve patient flow and discharge. 

A total of €4.5 million is to be provided for aids and appliances to enable patients to be discharged home or to a community facility as quickly as possible. 

The plan also includes the continued roll-out of the influenza and Covid-19 vaccination programme, and a surge and emergency response strategy, in the event of a significant rise in Covid-19 infections. 

The day after the launch, a related document was published – Strategic Approach to the Management of Covid-19: Preparedness for Autumn/Winter 2022/23

This report has been informed by monitoring of the epidemiological situation, international guidance, ongoing engagement across the various functions of the Department of Health, and the HSE. It also had input from the Covid-19 advisory group and the public health reform expert advisory group. 

US President Joe Biden recently received criticism for declaring that the pandemic was over. 

On the publication of the new strategy, the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was careful to stress the continuing challenge of Covid-19, especially over the coming months. 

“The winter period is traditionally a challenging time for our health and social care services. As we know, the pandemic is not over, and it is anticipated that Covid-19 will place a significant additional burden over the coming winter period on our health service.” 

How significant this additional burden will be remains… uncertain. This makes the planning for worst case scenarios vital. 

However, some things are clear. The Irish health system continues to suffer from a lack of capacity and staff. This point has been repeatedly made by many commentators, including the new IHCA President Prof Robert Landers. Rectifying these longstanding deficits would go a long way to providing more surety for the health service as it enters into future winter periods.

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