The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has called for elective care to be cancelled until the end of January because of pressures on the system from rising Covid-19 case numbers.
More than 6,000 healthcare staff are on coronavirus-related leave as hospitals brace themselves for a sharp rise in patients infected with the disease this week.
A steep increase in patients with the virus in hospitals was reported on Monday with 804 in hospital, up 87, of whom 93 are in intensive care, an increase of six. The Department of Health also reported 16,986 further infections although these figures are "provisional" due to the high incidence of the disease.
In other sectors Covid-related absences are causing problems with the chief executive of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) warning on Monday that it may put pressure on the critical supply chain.
Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha warned that the situation in hospitals is “very serious”. Staff are “stretched” and their working environment is “difficult” as it usually is at this time of year, but some hospitals are being overwhelmed. The absence of staff due to infection – or being close contacts – is also adding pressure and leading to “a perfect storm”, she said.
Staffing levels in intensive care units in particular are under pressure, she said. Consequently, “very sick patients” were being treated on the wards and staff in hospitals are very nervous, added Ms Ní Sheaghdha.
Elective care must be cancelled, she said, at least until the end of January. Nurses are doing their best in difficult circumstances, but the pressures are taking a toll. Many had cancelled leave and returned to work, but some are exhausted. Their fear is they are not being supported.
They are expected to act professionally, but could not do that to the best of their ability in circumstances beyond their control, she said.
It comes as new rules on quarantine periods and the use of rapid antigen tests come into force today, designed to ease the pressure on the overwhelmed PCR testing system and allow for more staff to return to work following virus-related absences. From today, those aged four to 39 are being advised to self-isolate if they test positive on an antigen test and to seek a confirmatory PCR test. An antigen test will now be accepted for receipt of enhanced illness benefit, which up to now required a PCR test.
Earlier on Monday Ibec chief executive of Ibec Danny McCoy warned of the pressure on the critical supply chain due to high staff absenteeism because of the Omicron variant.
Staff absent from work in the food manufacturing and the retail distribution sectors were between 15 to 18 per cent, he told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland. "That's of the businesses that are open and that we know about."
Given the current level of cases and because of the isolation period of 10 days, the numbers of staff absent from work is likely to keep building, he said.
“It looks like for every one positive case you may have up to three close contacts and sometimes they will be asymptomatic with negative antigen tests. That’s where a lot of the stress is coming from, particularly in critical supply chain issues.”
Mr McCoy said some companies may not open this week, while there had been “a diminution in the supply”, demand is constant.
“What we’re seeing on this occasion is the scale of people getting caught up in the close contact rules, the supply capacity is going down right across the economy. Some of those are fairly critical, that’s why the Government and the health authorities need to act fairly quickly this week to give some guidance.
“The rules are not clear on what is acceptable [antigen or PCR] – the other frustration is they cannot ask the vaccination status of their employees.
“We need guidance and we need it in real time as people start to come back after the Christmas period in manufacturing in particular, which is really crucial to the economy.”
Elsewhere Irish Rail said it would have to cancel some services due to Covid-19 absences and close contact absences. It said some Phoenix Park Tunnel and Heuston Commuter services will be cancelled as a result between Tuesday and Friday.
An Garda Síochána
Meanwhile the Garda Representative Association (GRA) has warned that significant numbers of staff are absent from work because of the disease and this is adding to the burden of work.
GRA vice-president Brendan O’Connortold RTÉ radio the pandemic is having an impact on the force – either because people are infected or close contacts.
“We’re back to the old style, fewer people expected to do more so it’s an added burden on our members. It’s just a fact that units are stripped down . . . so people might be travelling further distances to deal with matters.”
The leaders of the three Coalition parties – Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan – are due to meet on Tuesday evening to discuss its response to the latest coronavirus surge ahead of a full Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.