Laura Larkin: 'Delayed outbreak of flu gives Harris brief breathing space, but he can't rely on strokes of good luck forever'

Health Minister Simon Harris has started the new year feeling “encouraged”. He was heartened by the improvement in the first week of January when it comes to trolley overcrowding.

Yesterday there were fewer than half the people languishing on trolleys as on the same day in 2017.

“That didn’t happen by accident,” he said.

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It was a result of the winter strategy and hard work across the health service – which saw a boost in homecare hours among other initiatives.

But in reality there was a little bit of luck – the flu season has not yet arrived.

The outbreak which usually hits during this crunch period has not yet shown up – but it is expected in the coming weeks and will bring with it the usual pressure on the system.

A serendipitous delay of the annual outbreak and milder weather than normal has helped the figures along the way.

As for last year, Mr Harris said: “If you actually look at the trolley numbers from May, every single month – bar November – saw fewer patients waiting on hospital trolleys… but of course there were too many patients waiting.”

The minister’s positive sentiment is not reflected across the sector he is in charge of managing.

According to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) there was a record number of people waiting on trolleys and chairs last year.

The INMO said 2018 was a year of escalating crisis and government spin, claiming it was the worst year on record for overcrowding, with 108,227 people left without a hospital bed.

INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said: “Negative records were set throughout the year, with over 100,000 admitted patients forced to wait on trolleys and chairs.

“We know that this dramatically worsens outcomes for our patients.”

The INMO blames the ongoing crisis on under-staffing and lack of capacity – neither of which, they argue, can be sorted without a new pay deal.

The problems plaguing the health system are so systemic it is hard to isolate just one issue at the heart of the problem – the creaking waiting lists for homecare supports attest to that.

While it may be traditional to start the new year on a positive note, it is hard to feel encouraged when any gains may well be lost on the arrival of the flu.

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