The Chair of the IMO NCHD committee Dr Paddy Hillery has urged the Government to examine accommodation arrangements for healthcare staff returning to assist in the Covid-19 emergency.
“Accommodation in general in this country is hard to come by and for people coming back in a current emergency, it is going to be hard for them to get accommodation,” Dr Hillery told the Medical Independent (MI) this week (26 March).
“We are really encouraging the Government, where people are willing to return to the country…that they do provide some form of accommodation for people to help them during this pandemic time.
“So if they are coming back to help, that they need to be housed for at least the period while things are in the current shutdown, to allow people to provide care and not worry about where they are going to stay while they are doing that.
“The same goes for staff who feel they can’t safely stay in their family home because of risk to family members, and I think this goes for any front-line staff who are working in an at-risk placement ….that accommodation is made available for them near the hospital so they can provide care.”
Dr Hillery also said any “abuses” of NCHDs in the workplace should continue to be reported to the IMO during the Covid-19 emergency.
He said the union was being “pragmatic” in its approach to workplace demands amid the crisis.
However “if there are abuses, people still need to report it”, said Dr Hillery, who emphasised the safety implications of fatigue and exhaustion for both doctors and patients.
“We know this is going to be a troubling time, we know it’s going to be a busy time. We still need to make sure we protect our staff. One of the things that was seen internationally and one of the major reasons that led to people being contaminated was exhaustion, and we don’t want fatigue and exhaustion to put our staff and patients at risk,” Dr Hillery told MI.
Staff will need appropriate rest and resources to be able to practice safely. “We don’t want a situation where we end up with more staff sick and therefore end up more in distress,” he said.
Dr Hillery also urged testing for medical and healthcare staff to be as timely as possible. During this time of year, many staff may have mild flu-like symptoms that may or may not be Covid-19.
He said current protocols for most occupational health departments required anyone with respiratory or flu-like symptoms to contact their GP and stay away from work until they got tested.
“We don’t want a situation where a number of medical staff who are relatively well are off work pending tests that might take one to two weeks before we get any information back.
“So although it is important people self-isolate when sick, for medical professionals dealing with the situation we need to know if we have been exposed…so I think it’s important these tests get expedited to allow people to return to work in a timely manner, and continue to provide treatment to patients.”
In this regard, Dr Hillery was hopeful changes to the testing referral criteria this week will expedite matters for healthcare professionals.
More generally, Dr Hillery said doctors shared many of the same concerns as the general public.
“There is a lot of general anxiety about what is going on at the moment. We are all looking at what is happening abroad in Italy and Spain, and seeing the oncoming wave. One of my colleagues described the feeling of the last couple of days as people looking at the tide going out, wondering where it is, not knowing that there is a tsunami on the way.
“And this is the feeling in a lot of the departments over the last week or two weeks. Unfortunately we are starting to see it now, and it is definitely ramping up in the last week, but we haven’t been hit by the full wave as of yet.”
Doctors were also anxious about potentially exposing at-risk family members to the virus.
“For any of us who have older relatives we are concerned that if we go home and see them, there is a risk we could spread it to them without even knowing we were carrying it,” he said.
The capacity issues in the system are another oncern.
“From the point of view of staff and beds in the hospitals, the IMO has been arguing for years that we have insufficient beds, insufficient ICU beds, and insufficient specialists, especially in the area of critical care.
“We had insufficient numbers to deal with the workload we had previously, let alone the potential ongoing storm…there are obviously a lot of issues causing anxiety to NCHDs at the moment. But I would also say a lot of good efforts have gone in to upskilling people, training people and retraining people, so hopefully ….this is the best way to assuage fears.”
A “really major issue” has been ongoing and future availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), with the HSE stating that significant stock will start arriving into the country in the coming days.
Dr Hillery said the IMO has been applying a lot of pressure on the issue.
“The Government has assured us they are putting in good efforts to make sure it is available. But it is a major concern that we may not have enough PPE at certain times.”
“We are also looking at the issues of protecting our returning and incoming staff,” added Dr Hillery. “There is obviously a call to arms among a lot of our colleagues and we are trying to make sure they are protected when they come back, that they have appropriate registration, insurance, in place…”