Health minister Marta Temido
Health minister Marta Temido - Photo: MÁRIO CRUZ/LUSA

Health minister defiant in parliament: offers no apologies for crisis within health service

Government’s ‘contingency plan’ described as ‘sticking plaster for exposed fracture”

There is a saying in Portuguese about “a waste of saliva” – and that is exactly what happened in parliament yesterday. A great deal of saliva was wasted – while nothing seems to have moved forwards in terms of solving the deep crisis within the country’s health service.

Today, more obstetric units have been temporarily closed due to lack of available health professionals; nurses in Faro say they are suffering from exhaustion (Faro now is the only hospital serving communities the length and breadth of the Algarve) and signs of degradation are visible everywhere.

It hasn’t helped that mortality too appears to be skyrocketing. Official figures released for May put deaths from all causes up by 20% on those from May last year. An analysis for June shows the situation has become even worse.

The official excuse for the rising sense of chaos is that pretty much everything is a ‘structural problem from the past’, exacerbated by the pandemic.

Health minister Marta Temido also blamed “the fall of the government”, which never really ‘fell’ … and has been voted back with an absolute majority.

Says Correio da Manhã in its habitual Saturday bilhete postal (post card), the “emptiness of Marta Temido’s arguments (was) impressive. Covid and the fall of the government was what she arranged to justify the chaos…” 

After the parliamentary debate, the nation was none the wiser as to who is to blame for the fact that by (apparently) simply taking summer holidays, obstetricians can unwittingly cause such mayhem. It is not as if huge numbers of women are clamouring to give birth. Birth rates have fallen to rock bottom in recent years.

‘Breaking his silence’ on the subject, PM António Costa sounded very much as if he was blaming the situation on the fact that Portugal has just had two Bank Holidays.

“We are aware that the SNS health service has structural problems, which require structural responses, which are compounded by weeks like this with the accumulation of Bank Holidays and long-weekends…” he told journalists yesterday.

Mr Costa seems to have been girded out of his silence by demands – even one coming from a member of his own party – to sack Marta Temido. His response was “that’s all we need…”

“I think part of the problems will be normalised by Monday…” he ventured – and in that he is correct, in part: Portimão Hospital, for example, will be returning to accepting mothers in labour from Monday, having been closed since last Tuesday.

But other hospitals in other areas are still staggering under ‘incomplete rosters’ – and few ‘heavy hitters’ appear impressed by the government’s response so far.

Maria do Belém, health minister during the government of António Guterres, told reporters she had been “hoping for something more” in relation to the government’s measures to combat the situation. “It is a structural problem which exploded with the death of a baby in Caldas da Rainha”, she recalled.

But Marta Temido told parliament that she would not be “exploring deaths, the suffering of babies, mothers, families and health service personnel who find themselves confronted by extreme situations, or of society that is faced with the anxiety of services that are functioning with some constraints”.

In other words, this crisis of maternity units closing ‘here, there and everywhere’, boils down to ‘some constraints’ which, according to Ms Temido and Mr Costa, may well be sorted, in part, by Monday…

In response to the question: “what solutions do you have for the health service” (from CHEGA leader André Ventura), Ms Temido replied the government would “hire more, train more, increase training abilities, widen foreign recruitment, pay better and recognise that this is a systemic problem that has nothing to do with political colours”.

Meantime, the general medical council (Ordem dos Médicos) has called a meeting with finance minister Fernando Medina, and doctors syndicates FNAM and SIM have delivered a ‘counter-proposal’ to the government’s contingency plan, demanding firm promises over salary increases – not simply the offer of increased overtime pay for the next three months.

João Cotrim de Figueiredo, a leading light of Iniciativa Liberal, has dubbed the contingency plan as “nothing more than a sticking plaster for an exposed fracture”.

Marta Temido held her ground. The new Base Law, coming into effect – and ‘delayed by the pandemic’ – “offers strategic solutions, a vision in terms of human resources with autonomy of hiring, and incentives for health professionals with pacts of permanence”.

The EU bazooka (or Programme for Recovery and Resilience) is “another strategic instrument that the government has in hand and which foresees from the beginning, not only a set of investments but a set of structural reforms aimed to improve the SNS referral network”, she said.

Says CM, Marta Temido, with all those words (and so much saliva) “lost the opportunity to apologise to the Portuguese people”.

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com