To begin by stating the obvious: COVID is still with us and in the words of the WHO’s David Nabarro; “This pandemic is nowhere near finished”. That being said, the promise of further vaccine arrivals over the coming months has provided hope of a more stable ‘new normal’. The focus of the conversation is now turning to how we compensate our front line workers for what they have gone through over the past twelve months and the challenges that they will continue to face for the foreseeable future.

But what was noticeably missing from any of the conversations has been the role of agency care assistants, nurses and doctors. When the vaccine rollout began at the start of the year, no-one, including the HSE, could give agency staff a definitive answer as to where and when they could access their vaccines. Private care homes presumed the HSE would oversee it, the HSE possibly presumed the private care homes would oversee it and all the while the staff, the very people who have been on the frontlines of tackling COVID and protecting our most vulnerable citizens since the beginning, were left in limbo. This is despite several attempts by our management to engage directly with the HSE on this matter.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new nor is the negative press so often associated with agency front line workers. Healthcare professionals often choose the agency route to pick up some extra work but most find temporary shifts because it suits their lifestyle as they are unable to commit to a permanent job and schedule due to family or other commitments. But they have the same professional requirements, dedication and compassion and are regulated in the same way.

Recently, in a briefing for the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19, the HSE warned it may be unable to provide any more public health service staff to private nursing homes if they’re hit by new outbreaks of coronavirus. But this isn’t how healthcare units have been managing in real-time. In truth, it is no exaggeration to say agency staff have played a vital role in maintaining the entire country’s healthcare system both private and public since last March.

Agency support staff were often those called into facilities during the darkest periods of outbreaks, covering the provider’s own staff who were out due to being a close contact or having contracted the virus themselves. We are incredibly humbled by the agency nurses and carers who have willingly put themselves into difficult situations and moving on to do the same in a new nursing home once the outbreak had abated and permanent staff had returned to work. There have been so many frontline workers who have pulled us through the pandemic and the contribution of agency healthcare staff across many disciplines cannot be overlooked.

Ask yourself this question how many more lives would have been lost and how could our health system have coped without the tens of thousands of agency healthcare workers and recruiters that have worked tirelessly since this pandemic started?