The head of the HSE says he does not know why Taoiseach Leo Varadkar assumed health staff took holidays over Christmas and the new year.
“I am not quite sure where the Taoiseach has got his impression from,” said HSE acting director general John Connaghan.
Maybe the health authority need to better explain the staffing situation, he told a meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee on health yesterday.
Mr Connaghan said acute hospitals and the community services would be working closely together to maintain a balance between demand and capacity between Christmas and the new year.
Enhanced measures would be provided to cope with the new year surge and there would be “strengthened working arrangements” between GPs, nursing homes, and the HSE.
Meanwhile, the HSE’s deputy director general and chief operations officer, Anne O’Connor, said the winter plan would run from December 1 until the end of March.
“We are also targeting a four-week period — the last two weeks in December and the first two weeks in January — as part of the overall winter plan,” she said.
Ms O’Connor said they are planning to have more community services available over the period to take pressure off hospitals.
Managers are discussing with staff as to who would be available during the four-week period and how things could be done differently.
“We are asking people to redefine what normal activity might be in those four weeks in particular,” she said.
“There is a very intensive effort going on to look at the whole set of supports available across the community and acute services.”
Ms O’Connor said they had been working on the plan since September and are at a stage where the plan is already being implemented.
“We are not waiting for the publication to start implementing it,” she said.
Part of the challenge is freeing up capacity in advance of the busy period at the end of December.
“If we clear that capacity too early, we end up filling up again very quickly. We have a lot of work going on to ensure that we have a lot of supports available to kick in from December,” she said.
Ms O’Connor said they know they have a home care challenge, particularly around Dublin, that is affecting acute hospitals.
Asked by Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly when the plan would be published, Ms O’Connor said it could be signed off “very quickly”.
“The services are going to be ready. It is not that we are starting to engage with services. We have been engaging with services since September,” she said.
Earlier, Mr Connaghan said they are carrying out a “worldwide” search for laboratories to help clear a backlog of CervicalCheck smear tests.
Around 80,000 smears have yet to be processed and women have been waiting five months for results.
Mr Connaghan said they have secured agreements so CervicalCheck could continue and contracts are being finalised with the providers.
“The new model will ultimately see a more balanced model of public-private provision,” he said.
“We are also carrying out an extensive worldwide survey exercise to secure additional capacity given current demands leading to extended reporting time for women.”