Nurse shortage due to Covid putting ‘unprecedented pressure’ on mental health services

Ambulances, pharmacies and nursing homes among services affected by staff absences

Up to 600 mental health nurses are absent from duty due to the impact of Covid-19, which is creating “unprecedented pressures” on remaining staff to deliver services, a representative association has said.

The wave of the highly transmittable Omicron variant has resulted in the State recording a record number of daily cases of the virus in recent weeks.

The impact of this is being felt across businesses and services, some of which have had to reduce operations due to employees being positive for the virus, or being close contacts of a positive case and being unable to work.

On Friday, the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) said the latest surge has resulted in the closure or curtailment of some services, a "huge and unsustainable" reliance on overtime and staff goodwill to maintain rosters and staff being exposed to unsafe working environment.


Peter Hughes, general secretary of the association, said the situation is very serious and "will become unsustainable if the current staffing situation continues or worsens in any way".

“The pressures being experienced are coming on top of historic staff shortages throughout our mental health services and which have left the provision of services stretched to their limits,” he said.

"I am also concerned that we are starting into the new year in a very vulnerable staffing situation when there is already evidence of an imminent exodus of trained and experienced nurses from our mental health services to take up posts abroad in locations such as Canada and Australia. "

The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) said staff shortages have resulted in some community pharmacies being required to reduce hours or close for certain days.


Dozens of additional ambulances and crews from the voluntary sector have made themselves available to serve acute hospital patients from Friday, following an appeal from the HSE.

As of Thursday, 260 regular National Ambulance Service (NAS) staff were absent due to Covid-19 with potential delays in response times flagged by the service late last week.

Liam O’Dwyer, secretary general of the Irish Red Cross, told The Irish Times that on Friday seven of its 93 ambulances, crewed by qualified EMT staff, were put into action to help address shortfalls. Further assistance has been made available through Order of Malta and St John Ambulance volunteers.

“The National Ambulance Service contacted us very early this week with a view to meeting the three voluntary organisations to see about our availability and to co-ordinate that,” Mr O’Dwyer said.

The backup crews will focus on hospital-to-hospital and hospital-to-home transfers but, crucially, their numbers are likely sufficient to plug any gaps left by regular response teams depleted by virus outbreaks.

Between the three organisations, more than 150 additional ambulances will be available to the HSE but, more pressingly, dozens of extra EMTs who work on a voluntary basis.

Last week the NAS was at level-three surge capacity, meaning staff on annual leave were asked to return to work among warnings of delays in response times.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for the HSE said the NAS response plan includes seeking support from external service providers including the Defence Forces, private ambulance companies and voluntary ambulance services.

“The number of staff affected [by Covid] changes each day,” she said. “NAS are asking the public to help us help you by considering all care options available and only call 999 if it is an emergency.”


Darragh O'Loughlin, secretary general of the IPU, said the Covid crisis has resulted in "significant pressures" in the sector.

“This is exacerbating a pre-existing shortage of pharmacists and pharmacy staff that has grown more acute in recent years,” he said.

“These staff shortages come at a time when the demands on pharmacies have increased significantly. Each pharmacy will strive to maintain services to patients and the public, but reduced hours and temporary closures cannot be ruled out.”

Nursing Homes Ireland (NHI) said a recent snapshot survey of 100 of its members found that 8 per cent of staff are unavailable to work due to Covid-19.

Staff in nursing homes are working additional shifts and hours to ensure appropriate care and cover is provided to meet residents’ care needs, private and voluntary nursing homes informed NHI.

Tadhg Daly, NHI chief executive, said staff in the sector have "stepped up" their efforts to ensure residents are provided with excellent care.

“Nursing homes provide person-centred, specialised care on a 24/7 basis and this continues to be achieved in the face of adversity,” he said.

“Staff have endured an extremely difficult two years and very severe pressures continue to present.”

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said approximately 8 per cent of nurses are out on Covid-related leave at present, adding that it is becoming "increasingly difficult" to fill rosters.


Irish Rail said while there has been an increasing number of staff absent due to the virus, the "vast majority of services" have continued across the network.

Virtually all services – apart from four on Saturday – will run over the weekend, a spokesman said, while 96 per cent of services will run on Monday and Tuesday.

Dublin Bus said it is currently operating a full timetable, however, due to higher than usual levels of employee absence, there are "minor disruptions to a limited number of our timetabled services".

An Post said its services are under pressure but they are in "good shape" going into the weekend, and will be prioritising the delivery of antigen tests.

Meanwhile, the Irish Prison Service has announced that all physical family visits will be temporarily suspended from January 10th until January 24th due to widespread community transmission of the virus.

All visits between these dates are now cancelled, the service said, while video visits will continue to operate as normal during this period.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times