HEALTH Minister Mary Harney was at the centre of a new storm today as a record 569 patients were reported on trolleys in hospital emergency departments -- the highest number ever recorded.
Liam Doran, general secretary of the Irish Midwives and Nurses Organisation, said it was quite obvious that the minister's approach to the crisis had been totally inadequate and urged her to reopen 1,000 closed hospital beds.
Doctors and opposition politicians attacked both the minister and the HSE for failing to tackle the problem before it reached such crisis proportions.
At St James' Hospital in Dublin, emergency medicine consultant Dr Pat Plunkett said the HSE had its "head in the sand" if it thought flu was the reason for the figures, which were caused by delayed discharges, lack of beds and a shortage of junior doctors.
The minister, he added, had done nothing to deal with the crisis and in any other country she would have resigned long ago.
At Cork University Hospital, Clinical Director Prof Richard Greene said the numbers on trolleys was the worst he had seen in his two years as clinical director. All planned operations at the hospital have been postponed today.
Labour health spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan accused the minister of going "to ground" once the figures were issued, despite declaring the trolley crisis a national emergency five years ago when figures reached 495 patients on trolleys.
"Nobody should be forced to put up with those conditions" and letting people languish on trolleys in corridors for hours on end was completely unacceptable, she added.
Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly described the "shocking figure" as the clearest manifestation yet of the appalling failure of the Government's health policy.
Sinn Fein joined the criticism with health spokesman Caoimhghin O Caolain stressing that recent Budget cuts would make the situation even worse.
The nurses' organisation urged the minister to give the trolley crisis the same level of political engagement as the economic crisis.
It said Minister Harney should reopen the closed beds, provide more minor injury units and better community facilities.
The worst-hit hospitals included Cork University Hospital, with 48 patients waiting, Beaumont hospital in Dublin with 45 patients on trolleys and the Mid West Regional Hospital in Limerick with 44 patients waiting.
The HSE said many planned operations were being postponed because of overcrowding, and some routine surgery had also been deferred at Beaumont and CUH.
More than 1,500 of the country's 11,000 hospital in-patient beds are not available for a variety of reasons, such as cost-savings, refurbishment and infection control.
Over 500 beds are being occupied by patients who are ready to be discharged but who cannot go home or have no nursing home place.