17 December 2021

Dear Fellows and Members,

This time last year my letter was written during a time of great uncertainty. The COVID pandemic was by then well established. I reflected on the missed opportunities, enforced separations and family losses that had particular poignancy coming into Christmas. My message was of thanks to all who had served their community, hope that 2021 would bring respite and belief that a new normal would emerge.

Looking back, that hope was not misplaced. Society in the main accepted social restrictions and the health service coped, albeit at a heavy price. By the autumn, 90% of the adult population had been vaccinated allowing easing of the social restrictions imposed in 2020 and early 2021. Overseas travel became possible and with it the risk of importing another viral variant. It was perhaps inevitable that a new viral mutation ‘of concern’ would emerge but the rapidity with which the Omicron variant has spread across the world has been truly dramatic.

The words of John Donne, “No man is an island,” resonate as never before and the mantra of ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’ has proven all too true. Vaccination rates in low and middle income countries are a fraction of those in high income countries such as Ireland. This week, with the approval of Council, RCSI endorsed a public statement on the TRIPS (Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights) waiver, a motion put to the World Trade Organisation to waive intellectual property rights for heath technologies needed to prevent/contain COVID-19 until vaccine equity is achieved. It is hoped that the Irish Government will advocate for the adoption of TRIPS by the European Union and that 2022 will see COVID-19 vaccination on a global scale. Omicron is the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet – we must hope that the remaining nine letters stay on the shelf!

Fellows and Members will be aware through regular communication from the Fellows and Members Office that both the College and RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences have come through the last year by adapting to the changed circumstances. All education programmes were completed on schedule with, since September, a much greater presence on campus.  It is a testament to the commitment of the RCSI Community that RCSI was named the 2021 Sunday Times University of the Year for Student Engagement. The award differentiated the very best universities from the simply good during the pandemic by their ‘ability to look beyond pure mitigation when it came to student experience’.

The Council continues to work hard on behalf of the Fellows, Members and trainees. Much of the committee work goes unheralded but is essential to the delivery of surgical training and postgraduate education. The Council Research Committee, chaired by Professor Michael Kerin, recently appointed Professor Stewart Walsh as Director and Dr Anne-Marie Byrne as Programme Manager of the New National Surgical Research Support Centre that will begin operation in January. The Centre will establish a support network for all interested in participating in surgical research, building on the success of the Irish Surgical Research Collaborative to create a network such that all may have the opportunity to engage in research during their training and into consultant appointment. The Centre is funded by RCSI as a commitment to the surgical community across all regions on the island of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland liaison Committee has established strong dialogue with Fellows and Members. The regional update webinar this month came from Northern Ireland, dealing with the opportunities and obstacles to delivery of surgical care in Northern Ireland. It was most informative, impactful and worth viewing (Northern Ireland update). RCSI stands willing to assist in delivery of care and surgical education in Northern Ireland through the simulation facilities in 26 York Street, post-graduate on-line education and courses and through the School of Nursing and Midwifery and the Physician Associate Programme.

The Professional Development and Practice Committee, chaired by Mr James Geraghty, presented the draft report of the short life working group on career development and support for non-training scheme doctors to the December Council Meeting. The report will be finalised at the January Council and be launched at in February at the Millin meeting. It is my hope that the report will clarify career expectations and serve as a template to improve the conditions and professional development of the majority of non-consultant doctors working in our health service, without whom service delivery would not be possible.

The uncertainty regarding COVID has led Council to approve changes in the planned Charter Meeting originally planned for February. The meeting will now revert to the Millin Meeting on Friday, 4 February at which UN Deputy Secretary General Mrs Amina Mohammed will deliver the 29th Carmichael Lecture on ‘Education as a driver for Sustainable Development Goals’ and Professor Joseph Butler will deliver the 44th Millin Lecture on ‘The Evolution of Spine Surgery: a Paradigm Shift to Precision Medicine’. The remaining two days of the Charter Meeting will now take place on Thursday, 21 and Friday, 22 April. It is hoped that this change will allow the best opportunity for face to face engagement on campus while still allowing on-line participation through a hybrid presentation format. Details will be shared as they become available.

The pandemic has changed all of our lives. Certainly the last 18 months have not been what I had anticipated when elected President and yet necessity has brought commitment and focus. Much has been achieved – practice has evolved and society has come to realise that healthcare cannot be taken for granted. Investment in bed capacity and infrastructure must follow. Though it may not seem so at the moment, I have no doubt we will look back at 2021 as a turning point for the better.

Thank you for your support of the RCSI and for me as President.

Happy Christmas and a healthy New Year.

Best wishes,

P. Ronan O’Connell