Staff at Sligo University Hospital fear that the lifting of international travel restrictions will lead to an exodus of frontline staff to countries offering better pay and working conditions, according to Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane. The Waterford TD met with hospital management, as well as members of SIPTU and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), during a visit to Sligo last week. And workers reportedly told him that while the retention of staff is a problem across the health service, ironically, it is the pandemic itself which is stopping the situation from becoming even worse. “There was a concern among the unions and hospital management that while some nursing and frontline positions have come on stream, once aviation opens up and restrictions ease elsewhere, they could lose a lot of those staff to Australia or other countries, simply because of the working conditions and the pressure here,” Mr Cullinane told the Sligo Champion. The Sinn Féin chief said that hospital staff offered grave assessments of the overcrowding problem at SUH, with issues around bed capacity, resources and staff burnout on foot of the Covid-19 pandemic chief among their concerns. “The numbers presenting to the emergency department in Sligo are up on previous years. There are difficulties in relation to hospital bed capacity, which was the biggest issue raised by hospital management. “Essentially that’s one of the main drivers of people waiting in corridors or people not being seen quickly enough. The hospital simply doesn’t have the beds,’ he said. “In terms of scheduled care, if you are someone who needs knee replacement or hip replacement or some surgery that would require after-care, more often than not these procedures are cancelled because they don’t have post-surgical beds available, and that’s because of the pressure on the emergency department.” In August, Dr Mick Sweeney, a consultant in emergency medicine at SUH, called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to provide additional staff and funding to remedy what he called an ‘unprecedented’ overcrowding situation at the hospital. The medic told OceanFM that the hospital waiting room was ‘packed’, with patients on trolleys ‘in all corridors coming in and out of the department’. Deputy Cullinane said weary hospital staff are already fearing a further influx of patients with increases in cases of Covid-19 and ordinary flu expected this winter. “It looks like a bleak winter ahead for frontline staff and patients. Talking to the healthcare trade union, in particular the INMO, burnout of staff was the biggest issue. “They can see the numbers coming into emergency departments and they are already at record levels so the question is what it is going to be like in November, December and January. “They’ve faced a horrendous last 18 to 20 months and are looking at some really difficult months ahead. It’s the same across all the acute hospitals.” Deputy Cullinane said reports from the frontline tallied with complaints received by his party colleague, Sligo-Leitrim TD Martin Kenny, who last month said he’d been contacted by nursing staff who were “lucky to get a 30-minute break in a 13-hour shift”. “There are challenges due to the lack of bed capacity in Sligo. People are not getting breaks. “Nurses, especially those in ICU, are having to attend to patients and their breaks are being disturbed or cut short because they’re being called back. “Their shifts are long, they’re tired and burned out. They can’t give any more.” Back in August, Dr Sweeney blamed the rise in numbers presenting at emergency departments with a widespread easing of fears over Covid-19, with patients who had been cocooning now vaccinated and seeking treatment for longstanding ailments. “Patients are arriving in larger numbers and are sicker,” Dr Sweeney said at the time. Deputy Cullinane suggested the capacity issue is a symptom of the system’s failure to make treatment available away from the hospital setting. “We are not fully integrating healthcare. A lot of people are attending emergency departments because they haven’t got any other choice. “The out-of-hours GP service isn’t what it should be. The only option for people in need is to present at emergency departments. I’m hearing the same from the national ambulance service, which is being called out to people who simply can’t get access to a GP out of hours,” he said. “We’re also not managing people with chronic pain in the community like we should. I would like to see community assessment units operating away from acute hospitals. With these units, patients can be triaged in the community, as opposed to the first port of call being an emergency department. “The reason we see overcrowding in emergency departments is because when all that goes wrong, it’s like a pressure cooker, it just builds.” Budget 2022, announced last week by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath, contained an extra €1billion in core spending for the health service and another €800million in Covid-related spending. According to the government, the additional health spending will enable the hiring of the remainder of the 7,200 new staff targeted in Budget 2021 and the 750 in Budget 2022. Sinn Féin’s alternative budget proposed an additional €1.4billion in health spending, with new borrowing accounting for less than half that sum. Mr Cullinane claimed that extending hospital buildings to create new single isolation wards would also help alleviate overcrowding. “It’s the same in Sligo, Cork and Limerick – the space isn’t there to put beds in wards. What these hospitals want is single isolation beds rather than trying to cram beds into existing wards, which is not possible in some places and not what we should be doing,” he said. “Look at the 42-bed unit that’s needed in Sligo. That should be a new structure so the capital funding would have to be provided for that. In the alternative budget, we provided for 828 additional beds across acute and community care – 600 on the acute side, 6,500 staff to open those beds and also provide safe staffing levels and more staff in the community.