A phased re-opening of Wexford General Hospital is being planned for next week as Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly surveyed the damage of a major fire which resulted in the State’s largest hospital evacuation ever.
Mr Donnelly took a tour around the damaged hospital with Clinical director Professor Obada Taha Yousif and General Manager Linda O’Leary at around 8am on Thursday. He vowed to support the hospital’s rebuilding efforts.
While the hospital’s management is aiming to reopen some of the hospital next week, they expect it will take weeks or even months to accommodate a full intake of patients.
The fire broke out shortly before 4pm on Wednesday at the 280-bed facility and was brought under control within several hours by more than 40 firefighters from across Wexford and Waterford. No patients or staff were injured.
The cause of the fire has not yet been fully determined. However, the Senior Assistant Chief Fire Officer Ray Murphy suspects that a piece of machinery in the plant room on the roof might be responsible. He added there was “no asbestos or other chemical run off risk”.
The Cathaoirleach of Wexford Co Council, Councillor George Lawlor, has said of the 207 patients in Wexford General Hospital 30 remain requiring transfer.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Cllr Lawlor praised the “war-like effort” to evacuate patients and contain the fire.
The “remarkable war-like effort” had been coordinated between the emergency services and various voluntary and private bodies such as the Order of Malta, the Irish Red Cross, the civil defence, and companies like the Lifeline Private Ambulance to ensure that patients were efficiently and speedily transferred.
“It was a logistical nightmare in reality. And it’s remarkable that we were down to the figure of 30 patients. Patients who were in intensive care and mothers with babies in incubators, newborn babies.”
Cllr Lawlor said it had been a distressing time for staff, one of whom was his daughter, a nurse, whom he understood accompanied a patient who was transferred from Wexford to Navan hospital.
Wexford GAA would like to express our admiration to the emergency services, the staff of Wexford General Hospital and @wexfordcoco critical incident team for their amazing work this evening. Our thoughts are with all those affected by the incident. pic.twitter.com/IZX7A1Oit1
— Wexford GAA (@OfficialWexGAA) March 1, 2023
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said some of the hospital’s 1,100 staff were still arriving for work.
“I’ve just come from the hospital and I walked around it myself, and the hospital manager and the clinical director,” he told RTÉ radio.
“So right through the night, we saw patients being brought to Waterford, to Kilkenny, and to CHI and Dublin and to other hospitals. The entire healthcare service responded.
“Most importantly, there were no casualties, there were no fatalities, and it would appear – certainly the information we have now – is that no one was injured. None of our staff were injured. Patients, their families were not injured, which is a testament to the staff in Waterford to the emergency services.
“There are areas which appear to have suffered some significant damage. Obviously, on the fourth floor of the area affected, there is smoke damage, there is water damage, there’s a plant room. And then, for example, there are pipes on the way to the critical care units which may have been cracked.”
He said there are “substantial” areas of damage, including more than half of the inpatient beds and maternity areas, endoscopy and critical care.
He said it will take time to assess the extent of the damage and how much work is needed to make repairs.
“The areas that were not affected include the emergency department, some of the diagnostics, some of the day case, but certainly there is a large part of the hospital which to a greater or lesser extent has been directly affected,” he said
Wexford TD Verona Murphy has praised the emergency services and hospital staff and management for the manner in which they handled the fire and subsequent evacuation.
“It was a mammoth task,” she told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. “And whilst it was chaotic, it was organised efficiently.
“It just couldn’t have run more smoothly. And I’m sure there were things that we don’t know about, but for the most part it was about the preservation of life. And that was maintained.”
However, many people were now concerned about missed appointments and when services would be restored, she said.
“My primary focus as the public representative will be the restoration of services. And there’s been a lot of controversy in the last fortnight here in Wexford about the proposed 96 bed block for Wexford General Hospital.
“We now have a prime opportunity in which to fast track that process regardless of where it is. It’s time to look at it now and to see how restoration and the new bed block can be incorporated. Outpatients will be advised.
An overview of the scene and #firefighting operations at an area of the fire at Wexford General Hospital this evening. pic.twitter.com/fvEF3d7LhX
— Emergency Times (@emergencytimes) March 1, 2023
“I will certainly be engaging with the hospital as to where those services and how people are going to interact. The contingency arrangements for all of those services, including the deployment of staff, there’s a shortage of staff all over the country, but obviously families are concerned about child care, about school and times, everything.
“It’s not as simple as saying, you know, will you go to Navan, will you go to Kilkenny? All of that has to be organised. And to my mind, we need to keep this to a minimum of disruption and have Wexford General Hospital restored as soon as possible.”
When asked where patients would go now, Ms Murphy said in an emergency they should call the ambulance service.
“Everything needs to be done, all the stops need to be pulled out to ensure that the hospital is restored to working order as soon as possible and that as many of the staff that are employed make it from frontline to catering to administration are restored to their jobs in Wexford general as soon as possible.”
Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson David Cullinane has said that patient safety has to come first when asked how quickly Wexford General hospital could reopen.
“We all want the hospital to be opened as quickly as possible. I spoke to management at University Hospital Waterford, and they say they stand ready to support the hospital in Wexford. They have taken ICU patients and critical care patients.
“Obviously community services are being looked at through nursing home capacity, private hospital capacity may have to be used as well. It’s a massive undertaking to evacuate that level of patients and obviously credit has to go to all of those who are involved in that,” he told RTÉ radio.
Mr Cullinane declined to speculate on the cause of the fire, but fire safety was really important. Lessons may have to be learned and there would have to be a full investigation into what had happened in Wexford.
“In a situation like this it was important to support the emergency services, support hospital management, the crisis management team, which he said he had done.
“I’ve spoken already to senior hospital management in Waterford. There are wider problems obviously in hospitals. We have capacity problems. We’re talking about hospitals in Waterford, in Kilkenny, in Tipperary, Navan and Dublin having to take patients. And we know that hospitals are operating at near 100 per cent capacity. So that again echoes the point that has been made by many people, including myself, that we need more capacity, more beds, more staff in hospitals.”
The HSE’s chief operations officer, Damien McCallion has said that every effort will be made to restore services at Wexford hospital as soon as possible, but that a full assessment will have to be carried out first.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, Mr McCallion said that the main focus will be patients – those who were transferred or discharged and the 41 who remained in the hospital overnight in a safe area of the building.
Outpatients services at the hospital are cancelled for Thursday and Friday and all urgent and emergency cases will have to go to other hospitals in the region, he said.
“Wexford Emergency Department will not be open over the coming days. We will make decisions today and the team are working this morning and last night in relation to that technical assessment that will guide how we can reopen parts of the hospital and get the hospital back into operation.
“That process started almost in parallel yesterday with the emergency response. And we’re working with our own partners to try and establish that as quickly as possible with some services back up and running in the hospital for the community that are down there. It’s clearly a major concern and anxiety. A hospital is a huge part of the fabric of the local community and a very important part of the service. So we want to get things back as quickly as possible.”
Restoration of maternity services will be one of the priorities, he said, but in the intervening period, arrangements have been put in place with University Hospital Waterford for maternity services.