July 11: The bad news story that will not go away

Yet again we must return to the vexatious question of overcrowding at the University Hospital Limerick, a mere four weeks since that unacceptable situation last resulted in condemnatory comments on this page.

Yet again we must return to the vexatious question of overcrowding at the University Hospital Limerick, a mere four weeks since that unacceptable situation last resulted in condemnatory comments on this page.

This is the story that refuses to go away. And for as long as it remains a serious problem affecting the lives of thousands of our readers, this newspaper will continue to highlight it prominently, both on the news pages and in this column. We will continue to draw attention to a lamentable situation that has failed so many local people. If that makes those who run the hospital uncomfortable, we won’t be apologising. The same goes for the politicians who have consistently failed to get on top of the problem.

The story has taken all kinds of twists and turns and at various points there have been soothing words from people in high office that the problem is being addressed “as a matter of urgency”, yet it always comes back to the same stark reality. People lying in trolleys, waiting for beds. And waiting.

For years now, a particular email has arrived in the inboxes of every media organisation in the country. It is the ‘Trolley and Ward Watch Report’ sent out by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. These days, there is even an app for mobile phones which details the latest statistics on the numbers lying on trolleys.

The email which landed in the Leader inbox this Wednesday afternoon was typical: it showed UHL with the third worst figure of any hospital in the country. Twenty-one patients were on trolleys. The ward watch total counts the number of additional patients in wards, whether resting on beds, trolleys or chairs, above the stated complement of the ward in question. The UHL figure was 20. With a total of 41, it ranked third worst of the 33 hospitals listed, with only Beaumont in Dublin and our Lady of Lourdes, Drogheda, returning higher figures.

For the full month of June, 653 patients ended up on trolleys at UHL. Despite all the assurances made by various people, that represented an increase of 80% on the figure recorded for June 2014.

Quite naturally, Fianna Fail’s Niall Collins has seized on this statistic and also draws attention to a 156% rise in the numbers of trolleys since June 2011, which was shortly after the coalition government came to power. While politically motivated, it’s a perfectly valid point. Over the past four years, progress in alleviating the situation has been non-existent.

There has been much talk of the impact of the water charges issue on the next general election, but in our view the dismal situation at UHL, where the staff continue to do their valiant best in exceptionally difficult circumstances, is a local issue that should be higher on the priority list.

Fine Gael and Labour have less than a year before they face the electorate. When that time comes the Leader will be putting the UHL overcrowding situation centre stage. We will rigorously assess the performance of the current government during its time in office and challenge all parties and candidates to tell the voting public how they propose to address the problem.

And if they are given a vote of confidence, we will be holding them to account too, in the years ahead.