HEALTH Minister Leo Varadkar has warned that the trolley crisis may get worse this week as a result of an influx of newcomers due to a junior doctors changeover.
Mr Varadkar said there has been a marked improvement in the number of patients lying on trolleys, but this could deteriorate as the newcomers grapple with their roles.
His comments came as the main nursing union chief rejected statements by cabinet ministers Brendan Howlin and Richard Bruton that the crisis will not be resolved by money.
General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), Liam Doran, said money urgently needed to be pumped into the health system to staff 600 beds in wards that were not being used.
Meanwhile, nurses at University Hospital Galway have voted for industrial action to highlight the serious overcrowding at the Emergency Department.
Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation voted unanimously in favour of the action, which will take place on Tuesday, February 3.
The action will take the form of a work-to-rule, which will see nurses only providing clinical care to patients. They will not perform administrative, clerical or non-clerical tasks.
INMO Industrial Relations Officer, Claire Treacy says the overcrowding in Galway is not acceptable and staff were concerned for the welfare of patients in the Emergency Department.
She said the union was against plans to close 19 beds in the hospital in February when the system was in such serious crises. And she warned the level of overcrowding and staff shortages is impinging on nurses’ ability to provide safe, quality care.
Last week, Beaumont Hospital announced its intention to follow similar industrial action to highlight overcrowding there.
Mr Varadkar said the latest figures show that 209 patients are confined to trolleys, compared with 525 patients last Tuesday.
"The situation is much improved but we are not out of the woods yet. Next week the junior doctors change over, which is a difficult time in the health service," he said, as the six-month training stints of junior doctors sees them move hospitals.
He said that there was "some evidence" that a bout of flu was on the way which would make the situation much more difficult for hospital staff.
He said hospitals would need to "ramp up activity" later in the year to "get on top of cancellations" of surgery procedures in recent weeks.
Mr Varadkar said he had been in regular contact with Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the crisis in emergency departments, adding that they had become "very close" in recent months.
Meanwhile, Mr Doran said he was "disappointed" to see ministers were arguing that the trolley problem was not about money.
"I can't agree with Bruton or Howlin that it's not about money," he said.
He said the INMO was not the only body saying money is required, as the operational provider of the health service, the HSE, sought €100m and got just €25m to deal with the issue.
"We need additional beds, staff to provide those beds and additional community home support," he said.
He said there was a short-term problem, but to deal with the issue once and for all, existing services would have to be maintained while developing primary care units that would take some of the burden. These include minor injury units, chronic disease management in the community and home care packages.
He said all government parties over the past 10 years failed to address the overcrowding issue.
The union is holding a public protest over overcrowding outside Leinster House on Wednesday, as the Dail resumes.