Up to 5,000 people turned out to protest in Portlaoise, Co Laois, this evening over concerns that the emergency department at the Regional Hospital is to be closed down.

Protesters marched into the town on six different routes and assembled to hear from locals who have used the hospital in critical care situations in the past.

The HSE has proposed the downgrading of the hospital in Portlaoise because of the lack of day-care patients using the facility and their inability to appoint critical care consultants for it.

The chair of the medical board of Portlaoise General Hospital said the crisis in health care in the emergency departments of hospitals in the Dublin and Leinster area will be made worse if the Minister for Health approves the HSE proposal to downgrade Portlaoise Hospital.

Consultant cardiologist Sean Fleming told the rally that patients would be placed at risk by the move and disputed claims that critical care consultants could not be recruited for small hospitals.

The Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and other local politicians also addressed the crowd.