The director general of the Health Service Executive (HSE) has instructed Irish hospitals to scale down elective procedures and to prioritise both urgent care and Covid-19 care for the next 14 days.
In a letter to hospital management, Paul Reid said the redeployment of staff is also needed as a surge in coronavirus infections fuelled by the Omicron variant impacts the health service.
There are 884 people hospitalised with the virus this morning – a rise of 80 in 24 hours and more than double the figure seen on Christmas Day just 10 days ago.
Mr Reid told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show that the impact of rising Covid cases has meant that hospital staff are under “severe pressure”.
Some hospitals are experiencing daily shortages of up to 300 staff, he said, which meant that the priority had to be urgent care and Covid care. Non-urgent cases would need to be scaled down and private capacity would be utilised, he added.
Mr Reid said the letter was to give clarity at national level and to provide “consistency of direction,” as the reality was that many hospitals were already implementing such tactics. His letter was supporting those decisions.
While it appeared that the Omicron variant caused less illness, its trajectory remained uncertain and the 14-day instruction would “give a window of focus,” he said.
There had always been a lag between cases being identified and cases requiring hospitalisation and ICU treatment, Mr Reid said, and the situation would be clearer within seven days.
When asked about the breakdown of hospital cases between those who were admitted because of Covid and those admitted for other conditions and who subsequently tested positive for Covid, Mr Reid said that the figures up to Christmas had been that 90 per cent of patients were being admitted for Covid, and he expected that figure to rise.
However, patients in hospitals with Covid all needed to be treated in a specific way and required support and monitoring, he added.
The variant was also having an impact on staffing levels, Mr Reid acknowledged, which was in line with the international evidence.
It comes as 420 admitted patients are waiting for general hospital beds this morning around the country, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO)’s Trolley Watch. 320 patients are waiting in the emergency department, while 100 are in wards elsewhere.
On Monday, nurses from the INMO reiterated a call for all elective care to be cancelled until the end of January due to Covid pressures on the health system.
INMO general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha warned the situation in hospitals nationwide is “very serious”, with "very sick patients" being treated on wards due to staffing pressures in intensive care units.