Public patients are facing "apocalyptic" waiting lists and are in danger of being locked out of care, a consultant warned yesterday.
Dr Anthony O'Connor, a specialist in Tallaght Hospital in Dublin, has warned we need to have a roadmap to open up care, not just for private but also for public patients.
"One could have a situation where the private sector is allowed to operate as it normally does, but the public patients are still completely locked out of all elective care and all cancer care," he said.
He was among a delegation from the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) that appeared before the Covid-19 Oireachtas committee yesterday where the State's takeover of 19 private hospitals for three months was being probed.
The Cabinet decided not to renew the agreement, which costs between €97m and €100m a month, beyond the end of June. The takeover was aimed at having additional beds and intensive care facilities at the HSE's disposal if there was a big surge in seriously ill Covid-19 patients.
Dr O'Connor said the private hospitals should be used in the last few weeks of the deal to bring down the waiting lists.
He added: "We started with 700,000 people on the waiting lists for hospital care pre-Covid and by the time we get back to work we are going to be dealing with at least six months' pent-up demand and less capacity to deal with it."
Martin Varley, secretary general of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, said the deal represented poor value for money and had led to waiting lists in private hospitals.
Liam Woods of the HSE told the committee the partnership with the private hospitals had been devised and executed quickly, starting in mid-March, and all care they provided had to be part of the public system, which meant doctors could no longer claim private fees.
"Despite the unique nature of the initiative, and its relatively short existence, we can point to very substantive benefits," he said.
"A total of 7,605 in-patients have been seen to date and 26,007 day cases. In addition, the private hospitals have delivered 24,407 out-patient consultations and 35,073 diagnostic tests."
The number of public patients on waiting lists has grown sharply due to the downturn in activity.
The numbers waiting more than three months for an endoscopy have gone from 11,801 at the end of February to 17,664 at the end of April.
"Equivalent waiting list figures for orthopaedic procedures go from 6,134 waiting more than three months in February to 8,672 by the end of April.
"Similarly, all four national screening programmes have been suspended under clinical advice since March and can only recommence when certain safety conditions can be met.
"Some of the innovation undertaken in the last two months will need to stay in place."
Secretary general of the Department of Health Jim Breslin also defended the deal with the private hospitals.
"To me, that sounds like a fire alarm went off and we sent four fire tenders to put out the fire and people are now saying we only should have sent three. I am very happy that we sent four fire tenders because what if it needed more than three?" he said.
Meanwhile, Anne Graham of the National Transport Authority said: "There is no doubt that there needs to be a radical shift in the use of active travel modes over the next few months in our towns and cities.
"In the recently published Mobility Plan for Dublin, it has been shown that we need to plan for a doubling of walking and a trebling of cycling journeys at peak time."
Elsewhere, officials at the Department of Justice are making around 1,400 phone calls a week to check that people who have flown here from abroad are self-isolating for two weeks.