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Partial air ambulance withdrawal will not put lives at risk, Taoiseach says

The air ambulance service operated by the Defence Forces will be stood down for 16 days over the winter period


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

The withdrawal of an air ambulance four days a month will not put lives at risk due to contingency plans the Government has in place, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar said there is an issue with recruitment and retention of pilots after the Department of Defence said it would withdraw its Athlone-based air ambulance for 16 days between now and February 2020.

An air ambulance service based in Cork is set to provide assistance four days a month from a new base in Roscommon to act as cover.


The Coast Guard will help provide cover (Niall Carson/PA)

The Coast Guard will help provide cover (Niall Carson/PA)

PA Archive/PA Images

The Coast Guard will help provide cover (Niall Carson/PA)

The Department of Defence said the decision was reached due to training and staffing issues.

Mr Varadkar said the current situation is “not ideal”, but he does not think the staffing shortages will result in a loss of life.

When asked if the new measures may result in people’s deaths, he said: “I don’t believe there will be any risk to life or risk of injury.”

Mr Varadkar was speaking in Cork where he joined Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Tanaiste Simon Coveney to turn the sod on a new affordable housing development in Cork.

Mr Varadkar said there was no air ambulance in Ireland up to five or six years ago. 

He added: “Now we have two – one based in Athlone and one based in Cork, because of that, we need to train new cadets and new pilots.

“They’re being better resourced than they ever have been in the past. But, notwithstanding that there are challenges, particularly when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

“These are two very separate issues; the issue involving the Coast Guard isn’t to do with financial resources – it is to do with equipment and life jackets and hopefully it can be resolved quite soon.

“While those inshore services are not operating from the Coast Guard they will be backed up by the Navy and also by the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) and also by community services.

“The Athlone helicopter, run by defence force will be off duty, but we have a solution in place to provide cover. The auxiliary backup helicopter from Cork will move to the Midlands and will be backed up from the Coast Guard too.”

He said emergency services are being better resourced than they ever have been but acknowledged there are problems with recruiting and retaining pilots.

“Underlying all of this, is a real challenge that we have in recruiting and retaining pilots. It is not unique to Ireland. Every Air Corps and Air Force across the western world faces this problem, but we are dealing with dealing with that we have put in place a retention bonus for pilots who stay in the Air Corps,” he said.

“We do have cadets who are being trained, but in order to train them, we need to take the helicopter off for about four days a month but only for the next four months.  They will be back filled by the backup helicopter in Cork which will now move the Midlands.”

Fianna Fail defence spokesman Jack Chambers said lives were being put at risk by the grounding of the air ambulance operated by the Defence Forces in Athlone.

He said: “Like the docked naval ships, this is the outcome of the recruitment and retention crisis which Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe continues to ignore.

“Structures in our defence forces are collapsing and the exodus of personnel is accelerating. This is extremely concerning for the regions which rely on this service to save lives.”