GOOD weather and lower levels of flu have helped slash the numbers of people lying on hospital trolleys compared to last winter.
The special adviser in a new unit tackling overcrowding last night admitted that the mild weather this winter was a factor.
However, there were still 301 patients on trolleys yesterday morning, some of them for over 24 hours.
But Martin Connor, the UK management consultant who is advising the Department of Health's Special Delivery Unit, insisted that several measures in place since September had helped ease the gridlock.
The number of patients peaked at 569 in early January 2011 as the country was gripped with some of the worst weather seen in years.
Many seriously ill people were suffering from flu or respiratory illnesses while people with snow-related injuries crowded emergency departments.
However Mr Connor said other measures were making a difference -- including more forward planning; checks with emergency departments three times a day; real-time information about how long patients were waiting, and changed work practices in caring for acutely ill patients.
He said they were already preparing for the expected trolley surge around next Christmas which is "just 11 months away".
The unit has set a target that by the end of December no one should spend longer than nine hours on a trolley and 95pc should be admitted or sent home within six hours.
It is also setting a target that no one should wait longer than nine months for surgery on a waiting list.
By the end of last month there were 360 patients waiting for more than a year, despite a pledge that the list would be cleared.
However, hospitals will be under pressure to continue this performance this year as they close beds and cut staff due to cuts in their budgets.
Barry White, a senior Health Service Executive director, said effects of the bed closures should be reduced by the shorter length of stay by some patients.
Health Minister James Reilly said "far too many are still on trolleys for more than 24 hours". He said he believed the targets were achievable.
Meanwhile, he strongly criticised comments by a Limerick obstetrician that maternity services in Limerick Regional Hospital would put women at risk from March, when 47 midwives leave to avail of the early retirement deal.
It was wrong to issue unnecessary warnings about this level of danger when the HSE had contingency plans, he said.