As the number of patients on hospital waiting lists surges towards one million, the HSE has warned any spike in Covid hospitalisations will “pose a real threat” to patient care.
There are already more than 885,000 people on waiting lists around the country, according to the Irish Hospital Consultants' Association (IHCA).
The number of patients in the south of the country alone waiting for treatment for more than a year has risen 30-fold in less than a decade.
At a briefing, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the delta variant now accounts for more than 90% of cases and has "potential impacts through the rest of this month and into August and September".
“If we are treating higher numbers of Covid patients throughout August and September, it poses a real threat to us to the progress we are aiming to make in getting back to non-covid care and getting back to elective care," he added.
Speaking about the impact the pandemic has had on the hospital system, HSE chief operations officer, Anne O'Connor, said the outpatient waiting list alone has grown to 647,000, up 9% on last year.
“That’s a huge number, and something that we have to really focus on. We had started to make some inroads in our outpatient list late last year, but the surge from January to March (in Covid-19 cases) really affected that," she said. “Our ability to do outpatient work was severely compromised and impacted even further by the cyber attack.”
There were more than 69,000 cancelled appointments at University Hospital Limerick between January 2020 and May 2021, largely as a result of the pandemic and cyber attack, according to figures released to Aontú.
Vaccination remains key to keeping Covid-19 hospitalisations down. Chief clinical officer Colm Henry has now suggested that young children will need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity due to the increased transmissibility of the delta variant.
Last year, due to the type of Covid the country was dealing with at that point, it was believed 60% or 70% of the population would need to be immunised, he said. However that has now risen to 90% due to the delta variant.
Dr Henry said herd immunity is the “preferred goal” but admitted there is a need to balance the risk of the vaccine with the risk of the virus for children, for whom a severe impact is rare.
Paul Reid described the variant as "the last big hurdle" the country faces with regard to the pandemic but said we can face into it with a level of confidence due to the vaccine programme.
While Covid-19 and the cyber attack are being blamed for the latest spike in waiting list numbers, the IHCA said staff shortages and under-investment drove the list surges prior to the pandemic.
For example, it said waiting lists in the South/South West Hospital Group are “soaring”, as one in five hospital doctor posts remain unfilled.
The number of patients waiting more than a year for treatment in hospitals in Cork, Kerry, Waterford and South Tipperary has increased 30-fold over the past nine years - from 95 in 2012 to 2,900 this year – with 1,250 patients waiting longer than a year in Cork hospitals.
Meanwhile, the vaccination programme continues to roll out at pace, with a total of 5.34m vaccines administered to date, and two out of three adults fully vaccinated.
Asked about the one million vaccines the Government intended to buy from Romania, Mr Reid said there are ongoing active discussions with the Romanian authorities to work through "legal, regulatory, EU issues and matters".