Flu and bed shortage responsible for record trolley numbers, says Taoiseach

INMO wants elective surgery cancellations as 760 patients wait for admission to hospital

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has blamed record trolley numbers in hospital emergency departments on the current flu outbreak and a longer-term shortage of hospital beds.

With an unprecedented 760 patients waiting for admission to hospital on Monday morning, Mr Varadkar admitted hospitals were “severely overcrowded” at present.

The HSE said it apologised to all of those affected “by this surge in activity” and it was making every effort manage and improve the situation.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), which counts trolleys daily, called for major incident protocols to be adopted across the country, which would see non-emergency admissions stopped and elective medical procedures cancelled.


Mr Varadkar, speaking with Minister for Health Simon Harris at Government Buildings, said overcrowding had been exacerbated by a “very severe” flu season.

“Predicting a very bad flu season is like predicting a bad storm - and it still happens,” he remarked. “You have to try to manage and prepare for it the best you can.”

HSE management have the support of Government to take “any actions necessary” to alleviate the situation over the coming days, he added.

Some 92 patients are on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick (UHL) waiting to be admitted to hospital beds, the highest level ever for an individual hospital. The previous record for the most patients waiting on trolleys in one hospital was 82.

The start of January traditionally sees intense pressure on emergency departments and high numbers of patients waiting on trolleys, and flu has come earlier and heavier this winter compared to recent years.

The trolley count figure of 760 on Monday significantly surpassed the previous record during the ‘Beast from the East’ storm in March 2018, when 714 patients were waiting on trolleys.

Many hospitals imposed visiting bans on Monday and urged people with flu-like symptoms to contact their GP before coming to an emergency department.

Mr Harris, who was briefed by HSE chief executive Paul Reid earlier on Monday on the problems affecting hospitals, said the Government was putting “a lot of resources” into support services. As a result, the amount of extra money provided for home care hours meant the number of patients in hospital who were waiting to go home was at an “almost record low”, he said.

Fifty extra beds were being opened on Monday and a total of 199 beds would be provided by the end of this month, he said.

But Mr Harris said the health service “clearly needs more capacity” and had no surge capacity for events such as flu.

In Cork University Hospital alone, 50 patients had flu while in some part of the country, beds were available in the community but hospitalised patients were too sick to take them up, he said.

Both ministers urged the public to stay away from hospitals in order to minimise the danger of spreading infection.

The figures for individual hospitals show 56 patients waiting on trolleys in Cork University Hospital, 47 in University Hospital Galway, and 40 in South Tipperary General Hospital.

The Government says it has opened an additional 1,000 beds and plans to add a further 2,000 in the coming years.


Phil Ní Sheaghdha, INMO general secretary, said the figures show “Ireland’s beleaguered health service continues to break records in the worst possible way”.

“The excuse that this is all down to the flu simply doesn’t hold. There are always extra patients in winter, but we simply do not get the extra capacity to cope. This is entirely predictable, yet we seemingly fail to deal with it every year,” she said.

The head of the nurses’ union called on the Government to take immediate steps to tackle the emergency department crisis.

“We need to cancel elective surgeries, stop non-emergency admissions, and source extra capacity wherever we can,” she said.

Róisín Shortall TD, joint-leader of the Social Democrats, described the trolley figures as “shocking”.

Speaking on RTÉ radio, Liam Woods, the HSE national director of acute hospitals, admitted “this is not a good day” for the health service.

While he disputed the INMO figures, Mr Woods said there was “real pressures” on the health system, amid a shortage of hospital beds and gaps in community care.

The health official said capacity would improve with 190 extra beds due to open in the first quarter of this year. These included 40 beds to open in a new unit in Clonmel in the next four weeks, with further beds due to open in Drogheda and Waterford.

Winter flu

While the winter flu season had reached its peak, the stress it had put on the health service would continue to be felt for another two to three weeks, Mr Woods added.

As children returned to school there was a risk of flu infections spreading and parents were advised to keep their child at home if they were ill, he said.

A number of measures were being taken to ease hospital overcrowding such as reducing the number of elective surgeries carried out.

It was normal for the HSE to curtail elective surgery at this time of year, but it was a step taken reluctantly, Mr Woods said.

“We need to recognise that the system was running at 94 per cent before Christmas and it is now above 100 per cent occupancy.”

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times