Harris and Sinn Féin clash over healthcare as end comes to niceties

Mary Lou McDonald says ‘record’ quarter of a million hospital appointments cancelled, including 800 for children on chemotherapy

A record quarter of a million hospital appointments were cancelled last year, including 800 chemotherapy appointments for children, according to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

She said there was chronic overcrowding in hospitals, with 600 patients waiting on trolleys on Tuesday and 520 on Wednesday. But the “not so visible but very real consequences of overcrowding is the quarter of a million hospital appointments” cancelled, she said. “That’s a record”, with the “soaring level of hospital appointment cancellations on the watch of this Government last year”.

But Mr Harris said services were improving and more staff would be recruited. On his second day of Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil as Taoiseach, any niceties between the two have ended, with sharp exchanges on cancer care. He accused Ms McDonald of being “a little disingenuous” in her presentation of the figures, and said the HSE had asked people not to compare cancellation figures from one year to the next, from 2022 to 2023, as they were not comparable.

He claimed the Sinn Féin alternative budget had vanished “like Shergar” from the party’s website, as he previously claimed the party’ plan provided half a billion euro less for health than the Government. But Ms McDonald said the budget was on the website, and hit out at the Taoiseach for being “reduced” to trawling through websites.


Raising the issue of paediatric cancer care, Ms McDonald said that “when somebody receives a cancer diagnosis the world stands still in that moment. Life comes to a shuddering halt.” And “when the child receives such a diagnosis these feelings are amplified beyond what most of us could even contemplate”.

“A cancer diagnosis for a child must be utterly devastating for a family, and the instinct of any parent in that situation is to go to the ends of the earth to care for their child.” She said parents hope the system has got their backs. “So just imagine the cancellation of a child’s chemotherapy appointment.”

However, Children’s Health Ireland subsequently issued a statement that said there are no ‘cancellations’ in chemotherapy’ treatment.

Mr Harris said he wanted parents to know “that we will continue to invest more in the services to make sure that their child has the best outcome”.

He wanted them to know “that they live in a country that has really good cancer-care outcomes” as he cited survival rates of 215,000 people living in Ireland following a cancer diagnosis compared to 150,000 in 2017.

“And we’ve seen reduced cancer mortality rates by 14 per cent for men and 13 per cent for women. That’s a better improvement than the European average of just 10 per cent and 5 cent respectively.”

He said Ms McDonald talked about a recruitment embargo, yet he had to point out that 2,200 more healthcare staff would be appointed this year and that 28,000 more were working in the health service since the 2020 general election.

Mr Harris added that beds were an issue but 1,100 extra beds were now in place, and funding for a further 1,500 has been provided.

During sharp exchanges, when Ms McDonald said she had asked about hospital cancellations and not waiting times, Mr Harris said they were interlinked.

He then held up a copy of the Sinn Féin alternative budget which he said provided less for children’s care, and said “I’d like to know yesterday, after I raised the issue of Sinn Féin’s alternative budget for health, why it disappeared like Shergar” from the party’s website.

Later Ms McDonald said the budget was on the website, and asked “if that’s what we’re reduced to”, with the Taoiseach trawling through websites and playing to the gallery and TV audiences at home.

Mr Harris replied “I learned from you”.

She asked when the Taoiseach would meet families about as he promised, adding that parents were not interested in “smart alec” comments.

Mr Harris said he appreciated her promise not to “engage in smart-alecky comments” and said he could not give a specific date but was very happy to meet them in the next couple of weeks.

CHI issued a statement on Wednesday evening that said “there are no ‘cancellations’ in chemotherapy treatment. The majority of delays/deferrals are due to patient-specific reasons and based on clinical decisions relating to the patient’s medical condition at the time.”

It gave a number of potential clinical reasons for rescheduling appointments, including patients being unwell and unable for treatment. CHI added that delays or deferrals due to inpatient beds or staffing issues are “rescheduled to the earliest available bed or space, which is usually one to two days. Day cases may take slightly longer to be rescheduled, but are also done as soon as possible”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times