Hundreds of hospital patients suffered a last-minute cancellation of surgery yesterday amid warnings the trolley crisis is set to worsen.
Hospitals were unable to find beds for 541 patients who spent hours on trolleys in A&E departments and wards.
Consultants also cautioned that some of the patients whose surgery has been postponed up to now are suffering from cancer.
Patients with cancer in University Hospital Galway are among those whose operations have been put back due to rolling theatre closures imposed even before the winter emergency plan, said the Irish Hospital Consultants Association.
The ominous surge in overcrowding yesterday follows a series of control measures by the HSE since the beginning of 2019 which kept trolley numbers below 400.
But there are now fears the winter plan is beginning to unravel as an influx of very sick patients who need to be admitted to a ward looks set to escalate.
All day case surgery scheduled for University Hospital Limerick had to be cancelled.
Doctors in Letterkenny University Hospital were told surgeries are being reduced from up to six operations a week to two for the next three weeks.
The worst-hit hospital was University Hospital Limerick – where 44 patients languished on trolleys.
Letterkenny was also struggling to find beds for 36 patients, and a similar number were languishing at Cork University Hospital.
Dr Emily O’Connor, spokeswoman for emergency consultants, said: “It will get worse.”
Despite the efforts to stem the crisis and achievements by some individual hospitals, there has been “no wholesale change”, she added.
Health Minister Simon Harris, who met with the HSE yesterday, said a rise in the numbers of patients struck by flu was adding to congestion.
Mr Harris insisted the figures were still better than this time last year. But in a worrying development, hospitals are having to cope with an increase in patients who no longer need medical care but cannot be discharged without supports.
The HSE revealed some 526 of these patients are now occupying beds, escalating from 471 on Christmas Day after some 300 homecare packages freed up beds.
Dr O’Connor said many of the patients who are on trolleys are ill and need a bed.
She also worried about a slowing down of pace in the response from community services to help relieve hospitals as the festive season progressed.
Meanwhile, Mr Harris was asked if he was trying to put a positive spin on the increased numbers on trolleys by highlighting the fall in numbers year-on-year.
“It’s still far too many but I find the question a bit interesting because if we were standing here and it was an 8pc increase in hospital trolleys, you’d be saying ‘it’s terrible, they’re up 8pc’. I’m just making the point that they’re down 8pc,” he said.
“Of course there’s far too many on hospital trolleys. Of course we need to do everything we possibly can to help patient flow.
“But let’s remember what’s happening in the health service today… people are coming into hospital.
“They’re often very sick with flu.
“They need to get assessed.
“It takes longer perhaps to find them an appropriate isolation space in the hospital.
“It’s really important that the HSE prioritises isolation, that it does everything it possibly can to make sure that we don’t spread the flu throughout the hospital and throughout the community and we need the public’s help in that regard as well.”
He promised there will be new teams to assess the frailty of elderly patients in Cork, Waterford and Galway to determine if they need to be admitted or not.
More homecare packages are also on the way, he added. There will also be more access to diagnostics and 1,300 vouchers were given to patients for private scans.