Thursday, 10 December 2020

Questions (83, 157)

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

83. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Health if consideration will be given to providing an out-of-hours general practitioner care service urgently on the north side of Cork city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41268/20]

View answer

Mick Barry

Question:

157. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Health the measures he will take to ensure the recommencement of SouthDoc general practitioner out-of-hours services to the north side of Cork city; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42429/20]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Health)

I want to raise the issue of the urgent need for an out-of-hours GP service on the north side of Cork city. The Blackpool SouthDoc service, which had served residents on the north side, closed in March. According to doctors practising locally, people have had to walk miles for the one operational service, which is situated in an industrial estate off the Kinsale Road roundabout in the south side of the city. While it is accessible by car, many of the people I have spoken to do not drive. The route is difficult for them to access on public transport and the cost of getting a taxi is becoming an issue for them. As the second biggest city in the country, there is an absolute need for a second service. Will the Minister outline whether the HSE has made plans to address this issue or reinstate the service in Blackpool?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 83 and 157 together.

I thank the Deputy for his question and acknowledge his ongoing advocacy on this very important issue for the region and for his constituency. GP out-of-hours services for Cork and Kerry are provided by SouthDoc. The latter is a private organisation with more than 20 locations across the two counties, including a treatment centre in Blackpool that provides for patients on the north side of Cork city. Further to public health guidance and the curtailment of in-person patient consultation, SouthDoc closed a number of treatment centres from 14 March last. This was done in response to Covid-19 in order to protect both patients and staff and to limit the spread of the virus. Other than the Blackpool centre, all centres in Cork city and county have since reopened.

Cork Kerry Community Healthcare has written to, and met with, SouthDoc, requesting that the reopening of the Blackpool centre be prioritised.

Cork Kerry Community Healthcare has also requested a plan for SouthDoc to reinstate services and a timeline for this. While a timeline has not yet been received, the temporary nature of the closure has been confirmed. SouthDoc has assured the HSE that every possible effort has been made and will continue to be made to avoid or minimise any impact of the temporary closures on patients. The Government has supported the continuing provision of necessary out-of-hours GP services during the pandemic through a grant issued to service providers, including SouthDoc.

I thank the Minister for his response. I appreciate the impact Covid-19 has had on all services throughout the health system. It is my understanding that SouthDoc services throughout the city and county were closed at the onset of the pandemic to curtail the spread of the virus. However, as the Minister has acknowledged, all centres in Cork city and county are open except for the one in Blackpool.

I do not expect the Minister to be overly familiar with the north side of Cork city. For his information I note that there is a purpose-built medical centre, St. Mary's Health Campus in Gurranebraher, which could house a new-out-of-hours clinic. A service in this area could also provide for the people of Tower, Blarney, Grenagh and Whitechurch. The demand for this service is greatest on the north side of Cork city. One of the main issues here is the need for access to healthcare among people without transport. I would welcome any further elaboration on the possibility of using St. Mary's Health Campus as a facility for SouthDoc in the event that the Blackpool centre cannot be opened.

I wish to restate that this is an unacceptable situation for people on the north side of the city and beyond who have to travel to the other side of the city for out-of-hours care. Someone with a car might be able to deal with the situation. Someone without a car who faces an emergency with a young child must spend €40 on a taxi. That is completely and totally unacceptable.

I note that in reply to Cork Kerry Community Healthcare, SouthDoc has stated that this is temporary. The question is how temporary it is. Can we have a guarantee that if and when facilities are reinstated, this will not be a skeleton service with someone on the phone taking notes but no cars going out to visit people in the community? The people of the north side of the city and beyond deserve a comprehensive and fully staffed out-of-hours GP service. Can the Minister guarantee they will get that?

I thank both Deputies for their responses. As Members will know, all of the relevant services were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have no doubt that the fact that the Blackpool centre remains closed is very frustrating for the people of the north of the city whom the Deputies represent. Reopening it is a priority. The HSE has engaged with SouthDoc to ask for the centre to be reopened and to request a timeline. It is frustrating that a timeline has not been provided. I undertake to follow up with the HSE to get one.

In response to Deputy Barry's question around the nature of the services to be resumed, I can say that nothing has been brought to my attention to suggest that a smaller or more limited service will be opened. I can revert to the Deputy with a statement to that effect from the HSE.

I thank the Minister for his response. The service closed in March. Other out-of-hours services reopened in June but the people of the north side of Cork city are still without a service in December. I urge the Minister and the HSE to make this a priority. Despite commitments to resolve the issue, months have passed and the situation is unchanged. People are becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that this is the only unit that has not reopened. I stress the urgency of this matter and I hope the Minister can prioritise it as soon as possible.

The Minister says a timeline has not been provided but he will undertake to discover one. If the House does not mind me going into a rabbit hole, I must ask what the timeline is for the Minister to tell us the timeline. We do not want to know about this in January. We want to hear about it in the Dáil. Can we hear it tomorrow? If not tomorrow, can we have it early next week? The idea that the timeline will be kept secret from the people of the north side of the city until the Dáil reconvenes in January and the Minister has the chance to give us a timeline for a timeline is not acceptable.

I heard the Minister say he has heard nothing about the centre eventually reopening with a skeleton workforce providing a skeleton service. I advise him very strongly to put his ear very close to the ground on that. It is a very real danger here. That would be unacceptable to me and more importantly, to the people of the north side of the city and beyond.

I thank the Deputy. He asks a very fair question about timelines for timelines. I can make a commitment to both Deputies that I will have a response from the HSE in a matter of days. That does not mean SouthDoc will have provided the timeline that has been requested of it. I will re-emphasise the importance of this and revert to both Deputies on both issues in a matter of days.