Perfect storms underline the ficklesness of politics

Parting of the ways...Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster.
Parting of the ways...Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster.

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

It’s been a tough old start to the year, north and south, with senior politicians (experience and relatively inexperienced) getting potent reminders of how fickle a business it is.

Earlier this week, Minister for Health Simon Harris tweeted chirpily: “Hospital waiting lists falling – 1st time in 2 years. 50% reduction in longest waiters too. 2017 – the year we drive down waiting times”.

It was a big and brave promise – and that tweet might come back and haunt him by the end of the year….or alternatively he might be one of the few health ministers in history to leave the job not running a high political temperature.

The big January spike in A&E waiting lists gave the state’s youngest Minister a bit of a jolt and reminded him that health is not a quickstep routine on the way to greater things.

Harris displayed a little naivety last week (and it’s seldom he does) when he said the spike had taken him by surprise. The early January figures are always high. Less staff working because of Christmas rosters and a big rise in admissions leads to a perfect storm.

This problem has been around for two decades and it has yet to be solved. I came across this article this week, written a decade ago by my colleague in The Irish Times Eithne Donnellan (and a former Tuam Herald reporter!).

She described the situation in Letterkenny Hospital then in exactly the same way as we are reporting on the trolley crisis now.

That article was prompted by an emotional outburst on the Late Late Show by actor Brendan Gleeson, who was infuriated by the manner in which his elderly mother was shoved onto a trolley when she was admitted to a Dublin hosptial.

There are lots of voices and lots of agendas and it’s still impossible to identify exactly why it happens. Is it lack of staff in the frontline services? Or lack of beds in A&E or elsewhere? Or the refusal to use wards for trolleys? Or too many staff being rostered off at Christmas? Or problems with job demarcation? Or delayed discharges? Why is is worse in certain hospitals? Is it a lack of step-down beds?  Is it worse here than in all other comparable countries? And if so, why?

Despite this recurring January spectacle, the data and the explanations seems elusive and murky, especially to non-specialists.

If it wasn’t enough, the other Simon, Simon Coveney, has been facing his own winter spike.

The takeover of a Nama-owned office block, Apollo House, in Dublin by homeless campaigner certainly back footed the Minister for Housing and his plans to tackle homelessness.

Sure, there was an element of gesture to it but it was effective and did highlight what’s become a major problem. There’s a bigger problem that’s harder to portray – and that’s the hundreds of families living in cramped, squashed dispiriting rooms their lives in B and B’s.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.