THE government considered grounding ministers from the state’s €8-million Learjet because of gaps in services for flying children abroad for life-saving transplants.
The proposal was one of several options considered after the Department of Defence said they did not have the resources to provide a round-the-clock service for the desperately ill kids.
A briefing prepared for Minister Simon Harris explained that the service — which transports children to the UK when life-saving organs become available at short notice — was “not sustainable”.
The memo said one family had even relocated to the UK, because they knew if an organ became available, there were no guarantees of getting there on time while based in Ireland.
Other families on the waiting list for transplants had also been informed that delays were a possibility for their children, while the possibility of encouraging other families to move temporarily was also mooted.
The memo, obtained under FOI, reveals that at one stage the Department of the Taoiseach wanted to look at “grounding” the Learjet for ministers and only have it available as an air ambulance.
However, that proposal would not have helped because so few pilots in the Air Corps were qualified to fly the executive jet.
The aeromedical service had faced major issues from February to June of this year after one of two CASA aircrafts, which is regularly used for transplant flights, had to be taken out of service for engine maintenance.
The Department of Health also put forward a separate series of proposals including rehiring retired pilots, or using civilian pilots, to improve the service.
They suggested “prioritising the transplant programme” by the Air Corps and introducing an incentive programme to keep military pilots from moving to the private sector.
The lack of round-the-clock air traffic control services at the Air Corp base at Baldonnel Aerodrome was also identified as an issue with officials suggesting an aircraft could be moved full-time to Dublin Airport instead.
It also explained how they were trying to maximise the number of hours in the day for which “green” service was available, that is a flight within an hour’s notice.
However, the memo said that “amber” and “red” availability was a problem where transport might take between two and five hours, or even more.
The memo said: “The Department of Defence response was on the lines that [they] … provide an air ambulance service on an as available basis; the Agreement does not, and never has, provided for a dedicated resource.
“They pointed out that the Air Corps is only one element of the service and suggested that other elements, namely the Coast Guard and private providers, should be used to address our emergency transport needs.”
Among other options presented to Minister Harris was offering an organ transplant service within Ireland, with the possibility of it being a joint service with the North.
However, the memo conceded: “It is questionable whether, given the small number of patients involved, that any such service would be sustainable or indeed safe.”
Other options outside of the Air Corps were also being considered including the shared use of a private air ambulance provider in use by the health system in Northern Ireland.
Also raised as a possibility was contracting a private air charter service based in Ireland.
Another option was put forward suggesting that the parents of families needing transplants might actually relocate temporarily.
The memo said: “[We would] ensure that both clinicians and families were aware of the issues and of the efforts being made to resolve these, to explore the options of families temporarily relocating to either Dublin or London, and to ensure that receiving hospitals in the UK were made aware of the current difficulties so as to ensure maximum notice was given when organs became available for Irish patients.”
The minister was told that if families did choose to move, they should be given financial support by the HSE to cover their costs.
In a statement, the Department of Health said air ambulances were being provided by the Air Corps, Coast Guard, and when necessary, private providers.
They said: “Because of challenges faced by the Air Corps to retain personnel and the consequent shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers, Air Corps availability for air ambulance services has been somewhat restricted.”
The Department said they had become more reliant on the Coast Guard and private providers as a result and that all priority one transfers this year had been done with the time frames allowed.
They said that changes to Irish Aviation Authority rules earlier this week meant “some service restrictions” would now apply to Coast Guard transfers.
However, the Air Corps had committed to increasing availability while options were looked at “for continued service provision into the future”.