Four nursing jobs are available in Ireland for every qualified nurse applying, the latest Health Service Executive figures show.
Intensive care units and operating theatres around the country are among the worst hit for shortages as the HSE says it is having particular difficulties recruiting specialist nurses.
The HSE has also said it is 20 per cent less expensive to directly employ nurses rather than paying an agency to bring in temporary staff.
Latest figures show €293 million – or €800,000 a day – is being spent on agency nursing staff and locum doctors. The figure has almost doubled over the past seven years.
A 20 per cent staff saving would amount to almost €60 million a year.
Liam Woods, HSE director of acute operations, said it was working to reduce agency staff numbers but there remained a "challenge" in recruiting nurses.
“There are some reasons we will have some agencies some of the time that are just endemic in the business,” he said.
“Some maternity leave and other forms of leave may make sense [for using agencies] . . . we have more agency than we want to have and we have agency in places where we do not want to have it.
“The challenge is to recruit to replace that. We will have some natural movement of staff that gives to agency just for short periods.”
Mr Woods said there was some success last year in retaining graduate nurses and “that is a key focus for us again this year”.
“That is helping us fill some of those roles and to reduce agency staff. It is hoped in time it will help us staff the capacity to come.”
Although the number of nurses rose by 400 last year, the HSE is having particular difficulties getting recruits for “theatre and intensive care where specialist skills are required”.
Before the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Independent Galway West TD Catherine Connolly told Mr Woods two operating theatres at Merlin Park Hospital and an entire ward at University Hospital Galway were shut because of staff shortages.
“A ward is closed in the hospital in Galway where there are huge waiting lists,” she said.
“When I ask why it is closed, I find it is an absence of staff. If there is an absence of nurses at that level, we have an emergency.
“We need proper packages, and the package that was provided to attract nurses home has not worked.”
Pressed if there is a crisis, Mr Woods said: “Yes.”
“[It] is correct that there is a serious gap,” he added.
“Some of the work taking place at present in intensive care units, for example, is training.
“There is training under way within our system to grow the number of nurses available for that, but both that and the theatre have been two areas of critical deficiency that we have had to address. It remains a challenge.”
The PAC was examining the latest annual report and financial statement of the HSE, which showed “the ratio of nursing jobs in Ireland to nurses looking for them is four to one and it is particularly difficult to fill specialist nursing roles”.
To tackle the crisis, the HSE said it was offering all graduating nurses and midwives full-time contracts and improving educational opportunities and career pathways.
A Bring Them Home package has also been implemented to recruit Irish nurses from abroad.