Ireland Vows To Treat All COVID-19 Patients For Free

April 1, 2020

The Irish government nationalized its hospitals, imposed a rent freeze, and authorized state-funded childcare, promising free treatment for patients with COVID-19.

The Irish government nationalized its hospitals, imposed a rent freeze, and authorized state-funded childcare, promising free treatment for patients with COVID-19.

Minister for Health Simon Harris at the Government Buildings for a coronavirus press briefing. Sasko Lazarov/ Images via Getty Images

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Simon Harris: This is a virus that knows no borders and no boundaries, and there are no easy options. If there were, we’d take them. But we can show the world what can be achieved through intensive sustained public health action. At a time when we need national unity of purpose, we must, of course, have equality of treatment. Patients with this virus will be treated for free and they’ll be treated as part of a single national hospital service. As I teach the guidelines, today I received government approval that, for the duration of this crisis, the state will take control of all private hospital facilities and manage all of the resources for the common benefit of all of our people. There can be no room for public versus private when it comes to pandemic.

Kim Brown: Welcome to the real news, I’m Kim Brown. That was the Irish Minister of Health, Simon Harris, addressing the island nation on the 24th of March, and you heard him right. All patients who are dealing with the COVID-19 infection will be treated for free. And, in addition, all private hospitals have been made public, nationalized, and will remain so during the duration of the pandemic. And as we sit here in the US, dealing with our own COVID-19 pandemic crisis, hearing news like that coming out of Ireland is absolutely stunning. And we are here to learn more about what led to this discussion and the ramifications therein.

Today on the line we’re joined with Jack Horgan Jones. Now, Jack is a reporter with the Irish Times, which is a national newspaper based in Dublin, where he writes about public affairs and policy issues. He is joining us today from Dublin. Jack, thank you so much for being here.

Jack Horgan Jon…: My pleasure, Kim. Great to be here.

Kim Brown: Given the state of the American healthcare system, and the fact that we’re facing this awful deadly pandemic, hearing Ireland, and their leaders, step up in this way is quite remarkable. We want you to bring us up to speed on this. First of all, was this a plan that had already been discussed, and the outbreak of the pandemic helped to hasten this along? Or was this exclusively in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Jack Horgan Jon…: The latter. It was very much an emergency measure deployed in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Irish healthcare system has always been stratified and separated into public and private. In fact, we’re quite unusual in a European context. People think of European healthcare and they think of things like the UK’s National Health Service. We don’t really have an equivalent here. We have an organizing body called, The Health Service Executive, but there is a very large private hospital sector here. And indeed the private insurance sector will be bigger in Ireland and more important to healthcare service users then will be the case in other European democracies of other states in the European Union.

It is a remarkable development. And what makes it even more remarkable is that the party that’s doing it is, in fact, probably the party that will be least likely to do it in peacetime circumstances. The current government, the caretaker government, is led by Fine Gael, who are a center right party in the Christian Democrat mold, and certainly would be a socially liberal very much in that center right orthodoxy. So a step, like this, shows just how profound a shock to the system Ireland is going through, and how dramatic the policy response has been, totally unprecedented. Worth pointing out, as well, again, as you did in your intro, that this isn’t a forever thing. This is very much only during the time of the pandemic, and is being done with the acquiescence of the private healthcare system. But, again, it’s worth pointing out that they are going to be paid for this. They’re doing it on a not-for-profit basis, but they are going to be recouping their costs from the state.

Now, I went and I asked how much they were going to get. We don’t actually have a figure for that yet, but I bet you anything it’s not going to be a small one.

Kim Brown: Well, let’s talk about how the Irish healthcare system is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. I mean, obviously here in the United States, we are in dire straits, where our healthcare professionals, doctors, nurses, are saying that they lack the proper protective gear in order to treat patients. We are also dealing with a tremendous deficit of COVID-19 tests, even determine the rate of the infection here in the United States. And, unfortunately, this week the US has overtaken China and Italy for the number of COVID-19 infections. In your opinion, how is this being handled by the healthcare professionals in Ireland and the politicians, as well?

Jack Horgan Jon…: It’s a little early to judge just how effective the policy response has been. I think we’ll only really know that in a couple of months time, when we see just how many people are hospitalized and, indeed, tragically how many people will have lost their lives to this. I think, certainly, if you look at the countries that seem to have taken this well, the South Koreas and the Japans of this world, our response, the policy response has been more inline with those countries. It’s been pretty well organized from the start based around widespread testing. We had our first case on the 29th of February, so just almost a month ago. And then we had our first death on the 10th. Since then, we have something in the region of 1800 positive cases, but only 19 deaths.

You can see from that, that probably our testing system is discovering quite a lot of those positive cases. We’re finding quite a few of those. In terms of how the healthcare system is going to respond to that. While we’ve built from scratch almost quite a decent testing system, the healthcare system in Ireland has suffered from decades of under investment. We do have a problem in terms of waiting lists, particularly in the public side of the system. People take a long time to get elective procedures and, indeed, elective procedures that can be quite important. And we have quite a low rate of intensive care beds per capita of population. In fact, one of the lowest in Europe. So while we’re at a early stage in the pandemic, and while there hasn’t been that many hospitalizations, about 30% of the people, so far, have been hospitalized, and I think only 30 or 40 cases in intensive care. The sense is that we can’t deal with a big surge. We can’t deal with a massive number of people needing ICU beds, so we’ve been frantically trying to add to our intensive care capacity.

But only time will tell if those efforts are successful, because, obviously, we have a system that has suffered from under investment over a very long period of time.

Kim Brown: On Friday, March 20, today is the 27th, it was revealed that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, has tested positive for the Coronavirus. And looking from a distance, at how the UK, and their national healthcare system has handled the outbreak, or poorly handled the outbreak, given your proximity to the United Kingdom, looking at your neighbors, are you glad that you live in Ireland and not in the UK, at this moment?

Jack Horgan Jon…: I’m certainly glad that our policy response has been pretty consistent so far. As I said, we’ve seemed to have chosen our path early, and more or less stuck to that. There has been some changes around the testing criteria, who gets tested and who doesn’t. But, more or less, our policy has been consistent, whereas we look across the water, across the Irish Sea, and we see the administration of Boris Johnson flip flopping, going from this vague idea of hurt immunity, and then going almost 180 turn and trying to move into a containment strategy after that Imperial College paper that, I think, was widely circulated.

Yeah, we do appreciate that. But then on the flip side, while I think college response has been bizarre in the UK and consistent here, I think that the UK NHS with all its capacities is probably better prepared to take on a task like this, from on acute hospital point of view, then our hospital system. It’s like you’re happy with the policy approach, but do we have the system rightly to receive that surge in patients that is going to be coming into the hospital system in the weeks and, indeed, months ahead?

Kim Brown: Jack, I want to circle back to something that you said earlier in our discussion. The private system, the hospitals that are now being made public, at least through the duration of the pandemic, is it, at all, possible that the people of Ireland will say, “No, we don’t want to go back to a two-tiered system of public and private. We like this nationalized system, and this is something we’d like to keep.” Do you see any sentiments, or have you… Is there that undercurrent in the conversation as the pandemic is going on?

Jack Horgan Jon…: I think certainly there is widespread dissatisfaction with the model of healthcare provision that we have chosen in this country. For whatever reason it emerged, and there are a lot of complex and historical reasons why we got the kind of weird mishmash of American and European systems that we have. People then don’t have much confidence, certainly in the bureaucracy of the system, and the adequacy of the service provisions. So there is this large rump of dissatisfaction right there with the health service in Ireland. Now that they have nationalized the private hospitals albeit on a temporary basis, I think it’s going to be one of those things that it’s going to be hard to put that entirely back in the bottle after this crisis abates, when there is such widespread dissatisfaction.

I’m going to give you another example. The housing market here. We’ve been going through a long and very acute housing crisis and rental crisis. And during that time, the government has said that it’s unable to introduce a rent freeze across the nation, because of these very strong constitutional protections about the right to private property that exists in Ireland. Now, as soon as COVID hit, they introduced that rent freeze overnight, so that made a mockery of their reasoning for not introducing one prior to this. And they said, “There’s a clause in the constitution, which cites the common good, and this is clearly the common good.” I think it’s going to be very difficult on issues like rent freeze, on issues like the maintenance of a clearly inadequate public healthcare system, to go back and say, “Well, we did that for the time, when we were in crisis, but now we’re going back to that system that you’re all dissatisfied with.”

There’s another example, as well. They effectively nationalized the childcare system, the early years childcare system, crashes or kindergartens that you call them in America. They made every employee of kindergarten a state employee effectively overnight in a effort to keep that system open when the crashes reopen. As a result of that, people aren’t having to pay these enormous fees to classes, upwards of 1000 Euros, 2000 Euros a month, that many families were having to find. People aren’t going to accept, at the end of this crisis, that this is just re-instituted. I think the profound and lasting effects on the political economy of societies, not only in Ireland, but in the United States and elsewhere around the world of the COVID-19, that pandemic, is going to be far-reaching and long lasting, I think.

Kim Brown: And lastly, Jack, I know you’re in Dublin. I wanted to get an idea of what Dublin is like right now. What are the streets like? What is the sentiment, the feelings of people, as we’re dealing with something completely unprecedented across the globe? Tell us about your observations from Dublin.

Jack Horgan Jon…: I think in common with a lot of cities round the world, there’s a strange atmosphere. I mean, I went for a run this morning downtown, which usually you wouldn’t be able to do, because there’s just too many people around. But I went down just to take advantage of the empty streets, and while there are fewer people around, there is this edgy funny feeling. We went into a form of lockdown quite early, on the 12th of this month. The 12th of March, we closed all universities, crashes closed all schools. And since then, they’ve been gradually ramping those measures. We have been retrenching into the home, and I think that people tend not to go out. We’ve been told to self-isolate if there’s been any kind of symptoms. There is a good community spirit, I think, and I think we’ll find that in common with a lot of other countries that are encountering this. There’s no sense of civil unrest or anything like that.

The police force, while that is more visible than it has been. There’s a tradition in Ireland, the policing by concent. Our police force has always been unarmed. There is a slightly more visible military presence on the streets, but the most visible element of that is a naval ship in the Dublin Dock, which is being used as a testing center. So there’s no sense of the military coming in to aide the civil para in a meaningful way, and no sense of mass societal breakdown or anything like that. It will be interesting to see if that esprit de corps that has emerged is long lasting. There are indications that people are buying into the message that we’re all in this together. There was a lovely moment yesterday evening where around the country at 8:00 PM, everyone stood at their doors and applauded the healthcare workers, the front line healthcare workers of the nation, because they are facing a lot of the same risks, and a lot of the same press that you guys in America.

We are facing that personal protective equipment shortfall, as well. We are finding it difficult to source tests on the international market. There are a lot of commonalities of the problems everyone’s facing, but, as we’ve seen, there are differences. And, perhaps, in time we’ll see profound and significant differences in how states are approaching their response to this.

Kim Brown: We’ve been speaking with Jack Horgan Jones. He is a reporter. He covers public affairs and policy for the Irish Times. We’ve been talking about the nationalization of Irish private hospitals and the announcement from their health minister that patients dealing with the COVID-19 infection will be treated for free. Jack, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.

Jack Horgan Jon…: Thank you so much, Kim.

Kim Brown: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.