NEARLY 1,600 hospital beds were out of bounds yesterday as a record 569 patients -- many of them very ill -- remained stranded on A&E trolleys around the country.
Hospital corridors were converted to wards as overcrowding reached a new record and the wait for a bed reached crisis level.
More than 1,000 beds have been closed , mostly because of funding shortages, and nearly 600 are believed to be occupied by patients who could be discharged but who are waiting for a nursing home place or home support package.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) said yesterday evening that the numbers of trolleys had been reduced to 259 by the afternoon but chaotic scenes are expected again overnight and this morning as yet more patients suffering flu and winter illnesses overwhelm hospitals.
At least 13 patients had been on trolleys for more than 24 hours yesterday afternoon -- an ordeal endured by 45 on Tuesday.
The worst hit yesterday morning was Cork University Hospital where 48 patients left its emergency unit resembling a wartime field hospital .
A spokesman said they managed to bring down the numbers needing a bed to 18 by the afternoon but all patients on waiting lists who were due surgery had the operations cancelled to make room.
Many patients are suffering serious respiratory and flu illnesses and need a prolonged stay in hospital, adding more pressure to the system.
Health Minister Mary Harvey, who declared a trolley toll of 495 in March 2006 a national emergency -- and pledged to tackle the problem as a priority -- was unavailable for comment last night.
Other hospitals struggling to cope with huge numbers on trolleys yesterday included Beaumont Hospital (45), Limerick Regional Hospital (44) and Tallaght Hospital (38). Galway, Roscommon, Drogheda, Mull- ingar and the Mater Hospital in Dublin were also suffering from a shortage of beds.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, which compiled the trolley toll yesterday morning, said all beds needed to be opened as a matter of urgency to spare "ordinary people, many of them elderly", any more indignity or danger to their health.
Senior emergency consultant Dr Chris Luke of Cork University Hospital expressed fears that A&E departments had not yet seen the worst.
He said it was "extremely difficult to nurse patients cheek-by-jowl on hospital corridors where people are sweeping past".
New figures to be released on swine flu today are expected to reveal another spike in cases and doctors say deaths from the virus are inevitable.
A shortage of permanent junior doctors means several A&E units are relying on locums who may have poor English.
The HSE confirmed yesterday that locums were costing 30pc more in wages than a full-time junior doctor on €83,390.
And the HSE said that hospitals were attempting to take all necessary steps to reduce the overcrowding, including cancelling non-emergency operations and ensuring that doctors did more rounds to identify patients who were ready to go home.