Andrew Lynch: Hospital crisis may put Leo on political sick list this winter
Leo Varadkar already knows what he wants for Christmas. A nice, peaceful winter in Irish hospitals, sadly, is something that not even Santa Claus can deliver.
Instead the Health Minister is bracing himself for perhaps the biggest challenge of his career so far - one that could make or break his chances of following Enda Kenny into the Taoiseach's office.
Dire warnings about the state of our emergency departments are nothing new. At a special meeting of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) yesterday, however, the mood music was even gloomier than usual.
The number of patients on trolleys has now been increasing for 15 months in a row, up 17pc in September alone - which is grim news for frontline staff as they face into another cold and dangerous winter.
According to the INMO General Secretary Liam Doran, Varadkar now has just four weeks left to prevent a major crisis. Doran is calling for a rapid increase in staff recruitment, emergency beds and community care services.
If these are not forthcoming, we may even see nurses voting for strike action - a desperate move that would immediately put lives at risk.
The Health Minister took some stick last January for going on holidays to Miami just as trolley numbers topped 600 for the first time. He clearly does not want a repeat performance.
In a recent email to his political adviser Brian Murphy that was mysteriously leaked, the Minister tried to take a tough stance.
"The picture is worrying and I am apprehensive about where we are heading into for the winter. I have no reason to believe it won't be worse than last year and that really means a head, or heads, will have to roll," he stated.
For once, however, Leo's straight talk was quickly exposed as a bluff. Last Friday the Minister was forced to admit that he does not have the authority to sack anyone in the HSE and described his email as "just an expression of my personal frustration".
He sounded worryingly like a man who knows big trouble is lurking around the corner but has no real idea of what to do about it.
Varadkar's irritation with the mess he inherited from his predecessor James Reilly is becoming more and more obvious. On the Late Late Show last month, he blamed the media for not reporting enough good news about the health service.
At the annual meeting of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) last Saturday, he told a consultant, "I apologise if I was too positive, but sometimes you are too negative."
Behind closed doors, however, Varadkar is capable of being pretty negative himself. He recently warned Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin that the savings being asked of him would cause "a serious downgrading" of our health services.
According to Government sources, the Department of Health will receive a €600m bailout at the end of this year - which for patients on trolleys will be far too little and far too late.
All of this could have major political consequences, for the simple reason that Varadkar is not just any old Health Minister. He is also, according to one opinion poll, the public's favourite to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael.
Since coming out as gay in a radio interview with Miriam O'Callaghan earlier this year, he has become the closest thing that Irish politics has to a celebrity.
If a flu epidemic or vomiting bug strikes our hospitals over the coming weeks, however, Varadkar's popularity is likely to tumble very quickly. His opponents would deride him as nothing but an empty PR man, with a super-smooth bedside manner but no actual medicine.
That might not be fair, since the health service has arguably been a basket case since before Leo was born. But as far as most voters are concerned, the buck must always stop at the Minister's desk.
The INMO is often accused of crying wolf. This time it seems there really may be a furry creature with sharp teeth on the horizon - and if Leo Varadkar isn't nervous, then he should be.