HSE secures private beds as hospitals struggle to handle ‘apocalyptic’ surge in respiratory illnesses

Emergency department at Cork University Hospital described as ‘crowded beyond recognition’

The HSE has made arrangements to take space in a number of private hospitals, including St Vincent’s and the Mater in Dublin, as it attempts to deal with surging numbers of people falling ill with respiratory infections.

With the health system expected to be further stretched after Christmas due to people gathering while a number of illnesses are in circulation, some private hospitals are understood to have already started clearing space and making preparations to receive public patients.

The move is intended to create additional capacity as the health service prepares for what the HSE said could be the “highest pressures” it has ever faced over the coming weeks. Some €20 million has been set aside by the HSE for the move, which will provide between 150-200 additional beds, sources said.

The HSE has also agreed with GPs’ representatives to run extra clinics in the days after Christmas to deal ease pressures on hospital as demand rises again.


“We would be naive not to expect very significant pressures,” the HSE’s chief operations officer Damian McCallion said.

The numbers requiring hospital treatment for Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses to date have surpassed the HSE’s “more pessimistic projections”. There are currently some 1,200 people in hospitals with respiratory illness such as flu, Covid-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The HSE expects more than 900 people to be in hospital with flu early next month, in addition to up to 1,000 with Covid-19.

Prof Conor Deasy, president of the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine and a consultant at Cork University Hospital (CUH), said the impact from the pre-Christmas wave of respiratory viruses has been “worse than I have ever experienced it”. He said the surge had left the hospital system in an “apocalyptic” state and far worse than at any point during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met senior health service officials on Friday to discuss the pressures arising due to the surge. He later told reporters that the HSE should “deploy all resources available” to meet the challenge.

“My message to the HSE... is that I want all resources available to be deployed immediately and over the winter period, and that includes the use of private hospitals, use of overtime, whatever can be done should be done to minimise suffering and inconvenience to patients.”

The HSE has been in contact with private hospitals in recent days, and sources indicated that arrangements have been made with a number of them.

GP services were described as being “flat out” by Dr Mel Bates, medical director of the Northdoc service in Dublin, who said family doctors were struggling to cope with the “horrific” levels of “unexpected demand” seen in recent weeks. “The under-16s are taking up 50 per cent of the appointments …The system is falling over” he said.

Prof Deasy described the emergency department at CUH as “crowded beyond recognition” as it dealt with 136 patients. He said it was a struggle dealing with ambulances offloading more patients while staff tried to maintain social distancing between them to prevent infections spreading.

“It wasn’t as difficult as this during Covid – this is worse,” he told The Irish Times. “During Covid we had various lockdowns that reduced the business-as-usual activity but that has been busier than at its height before the Covid pandemic, and then you throw in a surge in winter viruses and RSV with influenza and Covid on top of that and it is apocalyptic.”

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said “dysfunction” in emergency departments was a result of “everything going wrong at the same time in a health service which does not have enough capacity”.

Phil Ní Sheaghdha, INMO general secretary, said there was now a “real concern” from nurses that staff could not provide safe care due to current pressures. Frontline staff had for weeks been “sounding the alarm” and the HSE should have reacted much earlier, she said.

However, Mr Varadkar rejected criticism that the Government was not prepared. He said that while there were no plans to reintroduce mandatory wearing of face covering, people were encouraged to do so in crowded spaces and on public transport. He appealed to people with respiratory symptoms to remain at home and for people to avail of flu and Covid-19 vaccines.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times