At least 1,000 extra hospital beds ‘needed immediately’

Seven people have died from flu so far this winter, latest figures show

At least 1,000 additional hospital beds are needed immediately and 325 more will be needed every year for the next two decades to cope with the health needs of our growing elderly population, an organisation representing GPs has said.

Dr Pádraig McGarry, chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation's GP committee, made his comments yesterday a day after the Health Service Executive announced the immediate opening of 60 step-down beds – to be followed by the opening of a further 63 acute hospital beds in coming weeks – to ease the latest winter trolley crisis in hospital emergency departments.

While the number of extra beds the HSE has announced is far fewer than Dr McGarry suggests are needed, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has already said the additional beds due to open soon cannot be opened until extra staff are made available.

Its general secretary Liam Doran said he had asked the HSE how many additional staff would be employed and when they would be employed to staff the extra beds, and was awaiting answers.

Later, he said nursing staff at Galway University Hospital had been told leave had been cancelled in order to staff up extra beds, which were due to open immediately.

‘Break cycle’

Following a meeting yesterday of the emergency department taskforce – which is looking at ways to stop overcrowding – Minister for Health Simon Harris told reporters he wanted to be the Minister who “breaks the vicious cycle of annual overcrowding”, and said longer-term measures such as provision of greater bed capacity, recruitment of more health professionals and a new GP contract were needed to achieve this.

Mr Harris said the extra beds would be rolled out immediately, with 28 of the 60 beds coming on stream in Galway from this weekend.

He admitted the HSE was not adequately prepared for this week’s trolley crisis and once again apologised to patients and staff for inconvenience caused.

The Minister has been under pressure since numbers on trolleys in hospital emergency departments reached a record 612 on Tuesday. A total of 395 patients remained on trolleys early yesterday.

Mr Harris has said an outbreak of flu and other respiratory infections had contributed to the problem.

Seven flu deaths

New figures released by the State’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre show the number of deaths from flu this winter has risen to seven. The data also shows the highest-ever level of respiratory admissions to hospitals was recorded in the last week of 2016, and influenza-related calls to GP out-of-hours services were at their highest level that week since the 2010-2011 season.

Flu outbreaks are particularly common in Dublin, Kildare and across southern counties, while western counties continue to have the lowest reported level of outbreaks, the data indicates.

Dr McGarry said there would be about 20,000 more people over the age of 65 every year until 2040. “They are the group who I suppose consume healthcare by virtue of their age; they get sick, they get diseases, and we are not at this point in time in a position to accommodate their needs in the current system. We would need to be creating 325 beds per annum in the hospital system,” he said.

Mr Doran said nurses were losing patience with cuts in the health system and the conditions under which they had to work, and the clock was ticking on the prospect of industrial action.