5 June 2020

Dear Fellows and Members,

It is a great privilege to have been elected President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The office of President holds immense prestige but also onerous responsibility, never more so than in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The word unprecedented is overused and yet it does not come close to describing the social and economic upheaval of the past three months. That as a nation we have come through the first phase of the pandemic without being overwhelmed owes much to political and healthcare leadership and to the maturity of the Irish people who have accepted stringent restrictions on employment and lifestyle.

Nearly 1,700 lives have been lost in Ireland, including seven healthcare workers, who willingly put themselves in harm’s way to care for others. As your President I wish to express sympathy to those bereaved and our profound gratitude to our medical, nursing, allied professional colleagues, administrative and support staff who have kept our hospitals running throughout the crisis. We acknowledge the wider pandemic and the impact on our international fellows and members. We remember Mr Amged El-Hawrani, ENT surgeon (RCSI class of 1993) who tragically died of COVID-19 complications in April.

I would like to particularly thank our outgoing President, Mr Kenneth Mealy. Ably supported by RCSI Surgical Affairs and the clinical leads in the surgical programmes, his calm leadership and wise counsel have served the College and our surgical community well. Information and guidance were crucial to maintaining acute services. There have been 36 separate initiatives through Surgical Affairs that have guided surgical care through the acute phase. Many of you will have accessed the information available through the RCSI COVID-19 resource hub and participated in the weekly webinars which have had in excess of 1,300 participants over nine webcasts.

The challenge ahead is the restoration of elective surgical care. There will be difficulties; changes are needed, the new normal will not be as before. COVID has demonstrated the need for access to safe, timely and equitable elective surgical care. We have long argued for separation of acute and elective care, for development of acute care surgical units and provision of protected elective surgical beds. It is in times of crisis that change is most likely to occur. Care pathways that protect both patients and staff are needed. This week will see recommendations published. While the principles are clear, the practicalities will differ in each institution. I know that our Members and Fellows will fully engage and provide local leadership.

COVID-19 has seriously impacted surgical training. The National Surgical Training programmes will take account of the disruption caused and every effort will be made to support trainees so that they may progress within expected time frames. Membership and Fellowship examinations will resume in the autumn. Those who have been unable to complete their examinations in the first part of the year will be accommodated.

The stresses of recent months will have impacted on all working on the frontline. It is important that we care for ourselves as well as others. Please take time to rest and reflect and be aware of the assistance available through Surgical Affairs should you need support.

Every decade brings its own challenges, the last was dominated by the financial crisis and austerity. The coming decade will be shaped by the economic and political consequences of COVID-19. RCSI has faced many difficulties during its 236-year history but it is a resilient organisation and current difficulties will pass. The challenge facing all of us is to manage the crisis and to build the future.

I look forward to serving as your President.

Best wishes,

P. Ronan O’Connell