IRELAND'S healthcare system is facing a "tsunami of missed care" due to non-Covid care being put on hold during the pandemic, an Oireachtas health committee has said.
Professor Robert Landers of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) warned that the health service will not be able to deal with the issues coming down the line in a timely fashion and that it will stretch the service to the "absolute limit".
"There is no doubt that we're facing a tsunami of missed care or late care, and unlike the Covid crisis we know exactly the scale of this and it will stretch our health services to the absolute limit," he said.
"There's equally no doubt that the public health system as currently structured does not have the capacity either in terms of personnel or infrastructure or beds to deal in a timely fashion with that tsunami."
Professor Landers said in the short term, the private healthcare providers will have to be used to address the shortfall in care. But in the long term, the health service needed to "act now" and build up the number of hospital beds to avoid longer waiting lists.
There are currently more than 800,000 people on hospital waiting lists.
He added that until the consultant recruitment and retention crisis was addressed and 700 vacant posts filled, there was no hope of matching the demand for post-Covid care.
The IHCA vice president was among a number of health representatives from the IHCA, Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) and Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) who were before the Health Committee on Tuesday to outline the challenges facing the sector in the midst of the pandemic.
Anthony Owens of the Irish Medical Organisation told the committee that it was "deplorable" one year on from the first case of Covid-19 in Ireland that there had been "no substantial and systemic action" taken to address the recruitment and retention crisis.
He said: "As a consequence, waiting lists have grown and stress and burnout is prevalent among the medical workforce.
Phil Ni Sheaghdha of the INMO told the committee the Government's treatment of student nurses and midwives in the midst of the pandemic could only be described as "exploitation".
She told the committee they were "going into the eye of the storm" and were not getting paid for it.
"Having an unpaid workforce of 1,500 people when you have 6,000 staff out sick: What do you think they're doing? I don't accept, and nor do they, that they are standing in a supervisory capacity and not engaged in work," Ms Ni Sheaghdha said.
"Of course they're working - and they're not getting paid."
She said they no longer had the "luxury" of observing and learning their craft. Instead, they were assisting in the delivery of healthcare.
"There's only one definition for somebody that goes into a workplace during a pandemic, doesn't get paid and works," she said.
TDs and senators heard that healthcare workers not only had the stress of caring for people with Covid-19 in difficult conditions, but that they were also dealing with very real issues to do with childcare caused by Covid-19 and the closure of schools.
Dr Gabrielle Colleran, vice-president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, said children of healthcare workers in Northern Ireland and the UK were going to school, but she said Irish frontline workers had been "abandoned" by the Government when schools shut without any supports in place.
"My children, my colleagues' children, are being traumatised," she said.
"They're falling behind, we're too tired and burned out to help them with home schooling when we get home.
"I got home at quarter past nine last Monday and my seven-year-old was sitting there with her Abair Liom on the table waiting to do her Irish homework with me. I just burst into tears. I had nothing left to give.
"She's stressed because she's falling behind, the anxiety is through the roof. We're not working from home so we're not there to support them.
"We feel we've been abandoned by the State at exactly the time when we have all stepped up."