TROLLEY gridlock continued in hospitals around the country yesterday with 400 patients still waiting on a bed.
Patients saw little respite from overcrowding in A&E units despite the numbers waiting on treatment easing.
Yesterday morning, 400 people were waiting on a bed -- down from a high of 569 on Wednesday.
In Dublin, Tallaght Hospital had 39 patients waiting while 38 were on trolleys and chairs in Beaumont Hospital where 50 beds remain closed.
Cork University Hospital had 31 patients waiting and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda was dealing with 30 people on trolleys.
Health Minister Mary Harney, who has been under fire for her absence during the crisis, returns home via Hong Kong this weekend after an extended holiday.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore insisted the Cabinet should have assigned another minister to help manage the crisis in her absence.
"I don't know where Mary Harney is. But if she is not available, then someone from the Government should be available, including the Taoiseach," he added.
Emergency departments and other hospital services may be facing a new crisis next week if the expected shortage of junior doctors materialises.
Some hospitals around the country may yet have to curtail opening hours of emergency units and even some maternity services in hospitals such as Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda could be under pressure.
The changeover of junior doctors takes place on Monday as they begin their next six-month rotation. But the HSE admitted yesterday that 165 of the 4,638 junior doctor posts were still unfilled.
Sean Tierney, a surgeon in Tallaght Hospital in Dublin, who is President of the Irish Medical Organisation warned last night the shortfall could be at least 300 doctors.
"Nobody is quite sure if there are overlaps in applicants for the jobs and one doctor could be counted twice. They could be expected in two locations and pull out of one of the jobs."
The biggest problems are in emergency units, anaesthesia and surgery. The HSE has been offering incentivised packages including two-year contracts, subsidised accommodation and a chance to work in different hospitals, in a bid attract doctors from abroad.
But Mr Tierney said even these extras were not enough to entice many doctors who would prefer to go to countries like Australia where they could get recognised training jobs.
Dr James Reilly, Fine Gael health spokesman, said last night he feared the overcrowding in hospitals was putting people whose immune systems were down because of cancer treatments and cystic fibrosis in danger of catching swine flu.
"There is now a sense of inevitability that cross-infection will lead to tragedy as patients who are already vulnerable have to fight the extra threat of swine flu," he said.