The number of people on hospital waiting lists could soon hit a record one million amid mounting concern about the impact of Covid-19 on delayed treatment and care for routine illness, it emerged yesterday.
The forecast was made by the Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) as HSE figures reveal the extent of the hidden crisis in non-Covid care as wards and intensive care units are given over to patients seriously ill with the virus.
The most recent figures for January showed 862,720 people are now on some form of waiting list – a jump of 86,221 in a year.
IHCA President Dr Alan Irvine said: “Regrettably, in the short-term due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis these waiting lists will deteriorate further.
“The impact of the current surge and the unavoidable delays in providing hospital care will be particularly felt in the second half of the year, but also for years to come unless plans are put in place now to clear the backlogs.”
Figures released by the HSE in the past week show that 624,532 people are waiting to see a specialist – up from 56.693 when the pandemic began.
There are 82,051 people in the queue for an operation compared to 77,748 last March.
The queue for a routine colonoscopy – a test which can reveal conditions like bowel cancer – is particularly worrying.
Last March 28,204 people were on the waiting list. Now there are 37,354.
The third wave surge derailed progress which was being made since the autumn in catching up on the backlog caused by the first months of the pandemic.
The current crisis is due to so many non-Covid services being put on hold along with the reluctance of many people to seek medical treatment due to fears they will catch the virus if they attend hospital for treatment.
It comes as the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital yesterday had fallen to 726.
Of these, 156 patients are in intensive care.
There were a further 33 people admitted to hospital in the previous 24 hours yesterday.
There were hopes last week that hospital admissions had plateaued after dropping significantly.
One more Covid-19 related death was reported yesterday with another 686 newly diagnosed cases.
This week will be important in showing if progress in reducing the spread of the virus continues to be slow, prolonging the need for most lockdown restrictions to remain in place.
Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn said: “We continue to see really high levels of compliance amongst the population and this is having a positive impact on the levels of disease in our communities.
“It is also having a positive impact on our hospitals – while last week there were 269 cases in healthcare workers and four outbreaks in our hospitals these represent a very significant reduction compared with the 839 cases and 15 outbreaks in the week to February 7.
“In time, vaccination will be our most powerful tool against Covid-19 and over the coming weeks those who are highest risk in our families and communities will get vaccinated,” said Dr Glynn.
“For now, each of us has a range of tried and trusted tools at our disposal – by keeping our distance, washing our hands, wearing face masks and staying at home we will continue to drive down transmission of this disease.
"Our collective efforts move us closer to the continued re-opening of our schools and the resumption of non-Covid healthcare services.”
Yesterday’s new cases included 278 in Dublin, 49 in Limerick, 37 in Kildare, 32 in Louth and 31 in Donegal.
The remaining 259 cases were spread across all remaining counties.