Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has said he is "sick to death" of the problem of overcrowding in hospital emergency departments and he plans to tackle it once and for all.
Speaking after he returned from the US - a day after the numbers of patients on trolleys in hospitals across the State breached the 600 mark - he acknowledged measures put in place over Christmas to deal with the problem had not succeeded in preventing the crisis.
Mr Varadkar said he predicted the crisis before Christmas and had convened a meeting of a high-level emergency task force within the health services on December 23rd.
“These are the worst figures for four years but that’s not the point. If there are 500 or 600 patients [awaiting admission] that’s too many. Nobody should be on a trolley for nine hours.
“There is a patient safety risk for somebody on a trolley for that long,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said the situation was likely to “get really bad” next week as the second week of January was normally the most critical of the year for admissions.
Defending the actions that had been taken to address the problem, Mr Varadkar said that a series of measures had been put in place but accepted that they had not been sufficient to deal with the problem, resulting in over 600 patients - a record - awaiting admission to hospital on Tuesday.
The Minister returned to Ireland after a short holiday to visit relatives in the US. In a series of interviews he said he had secured an extra sum of €3 million on top of the €25m already allocated to deal with overcrowding in hospital emergency departments.
He told RTÉ's Drivetime that the funding had reduced from 850 to 700 the number of delayed discharge patients who were in hospitals. The funding had also provided 400 additional nursing home places and homecare packages to assist patients to leave acute hospitals.
“It made a difference but not enough of a difference,” he said.
“It now appears to be clear that a lot of measures we tried to put in place over Christmas, particularly the homecare packages, did not follow through, for whatever reason.”
He said additional measures were being put in place, including the reopening of closed beds in hospitals such as St Vincent's and Beaumont in Dublin, as well as St Luke's in Kilkenny.
Mr Varadkar also asked nursing unions to agree to placing one or two additional beds in non-emergency wards until the crisis was over. He called for medical staff on non-emergency wards to come to the assistance of their colleagues, as many of them had done already.
Meanwhile, the organisation representing nursing homes said over 1,200 private and voluntary nursing home beds were unoccupied across the country.
Nursing Home Ireland, which carried out a survey of members, called for the establishment of a forum to plan for the ageing population’s long-term residential care requirements.
The Irish Hospital Consultants Association said the current trolley crisis was "creating an unacceptable risk and danger to patients" and called on the HSE to immediately open beds and increase staffing levels.
The president of the Irish Medical Organisation Prof Trevor Duffy warned that elderly patients who were deterred from going to emergency departments because of the crisis were running significant risks to their health and wellbeing.