Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s approach to dealing with the fourth wave of the pandemic as the Opposition hit out at the crisis in ICU capacity and delays in accessing PCR tests.
Mr Martin said there will be 301 intensive care beds in place by the end of the year with resources for 322 “give or take” and “the aim is to get to 340 by the end of 2022”.
Mr Martin also called on TDs to be more positive in the Covid message as they criticised difficulties in getting PCR tests.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said there is huge concern across society at the growing rate of infections, the prospect of further restrictions and people’s inability to get a PCR test is “putting a tin hat on it”.
An explanation is need for the lack of planning and capacity and the Minister for Health should come into the Dáil to address this, she said.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said "you can't get a PCR test for love nor money in Dublin" and he called for walk-in PCR testing because people were suffering "inordinate delays".
But Mr Martin said some of the language was out of order. He understood criticism but “there needs to be a greater sense of giving a positive message to the public for what is being achieved.
“It’s all very well to be talking about putting the tin hat on it in absolutely attempting to ridicule what’s going on.”
He said “we’ve had 207,000 people PCR tested in the past seven days” and 1,900 people came in over the weekend for their first vaccine.
Mr Martin said “we’ve had to deal with a once in a century pandemic for two years, and that was extremely pressurising on employees,” particularly “in the engine room of the ICU”.
Ms McDonald claimed the Government was repeatedly “a day late and a dollar short” in attempting to deal with the fourth wave of Covid-19 and the lack of ICU capacity.
She said large swathes of the country across a number of counties could not get PCR tests while the Government “dithers” on antigen testing. But the sharpest impact was being felt in hospital intensive care units.
A report from 2009 recommended an increase in ICU beds from 289 to 579. “So successive governments have known about this problem for more than a decade, and to have done nothing.”
Ms McDonald also said that the state of the health service was the reason for the repeated and lengthy restrictions and she asked when would the Minister for Health put in place a “permanent investment that we get to a reasonable place and not be constantly in this danger and jeopardy”.
She also said that “earlier this month a transplant operation was cancelled in Dublin’s Mater hospital because there was no ICU bed available.
“I cannot imagine how distressing this was for the patient for their family, for the doctors, indeed, who had to make this call. There should have been an ICU bed for this patient. There would have been an ICU bed had Government planned properly.”
The Taoiseach told her that “I believe that operation should have gone ahead”. He said as minister for health he set up the Mater’s transplant unit “so it’s a cause of great regret to me that the transplant going ahead. There is an internal inquiry going on in relation to that.”
He insisted that the Government was planning and preparing and that 300 beds were in place. He added that 11,000 people had been employed in the health service in the last two years and resources were not an issue but “the rate at which we can recruit” people and put the systems in place.
He acknowledged that more ICU beds were needed. “We’ve gone from 225 to 300 intensive care beds and we will have to go more in 2022, a minimum of 340.”
Mr Martin also insisted that “we haven’t had prolonged restrictions. We’ve reopened the economy and society and that increases socialisation leads to an increase in infections.”
Labour health spokesman Duncan Smith said that delayed decision making by the Government has resulted in the slow roll out of the booster campaign and he too criticised the delays in people accessing PCR tests.
He said that people had to sit at their computers until midnight pressing “re-set” to try and get a PCR test appointment.
But the Taoiseach said that over 600,000 people had received the booster vaccine and it was “well under way” and that 207,000 people had received a PCR test in the past seven days.
Asked by The Irish Times if there had been recent delays in providing PCR tests for close contacts, a HSE spokeswoman said that across all test centres, an average of 97 per cent of people referred by GPs or the contact tracing service received their test on the same or next day.
Data published for the week to November 18th showed the community testing service, designed to process up to 20,000 tests per day at peak times, had reached in excess of 25,000. On Monday, November 15th, more than 32,000 tests were scheduled.
The HSE is working on providing further capacity through private testing services, similar to that recently opened at Dublin Airport, in Cork and Limerick.