The Minister for Health has said that waiting lists for elective care could become longer over the coming months as Covid-19 "has knocked out 20-50%" of public health capacity.

However, Stephen Donnelly said the idea that public health restrictions are being introduced due to a lack of capacity in dealing with the virus is factually incorrect.

He said "the challenge this winter is not like anything we have faced before".

Mr Donnelly told RTÉ's News at One that numbers of cases of the virus in Dublin are "beginning to stabilise" and he hopes that further restrictions are not needed in Dublin so that it can be returned to alert Level 2.

The minister said that initial forecasting from the HSE suggests that elective care waiting times could go up despite the winter plan, but said everything was being done to give solace to patients, particularly cancer patients.

He said the winter plan launched today is 15 times larger than last year's winter plan, but he does not want to set false expectations.

He acknowledged that "waiting lists are huge" both historically and as a result of care being paused, with hundreds of thousands of people waiting for procedures.

Covid-19 is "a crisis for capacity" unlike anything we have seen before 

The minister said that there are a number of measures being taken to treat patients who are waiting; including contacting private providers to treat public patients for day-case procedures; hiring additional therapists in the community and building capacity in the public system by adding 900 acute beds to the public system.

Minister Donnelly said the Winter Plan for the health service accelerates the Sláintecare plan to fight Covid-19 by building up community capacity, building up the public hospital system and by seeking to protect vulnerable groups.

He said that diagnostics in public hospitals can be utilised more as many do not work 24/7, but this requires recruitment.

He said that faced with Covid-19 and ever-increasing waiting lists, in the short-term private services will be used.

On nurses, he said that we need to made sure graduates want to stay in Ireland and that we become less reliant on bringing people into the country.

Capacity to carry out 100,000 Covid-19 tests 

Minister Donnelly said the HSE's capacity to conduct 100,000 Covid-19 tests per week is one of the highest capacities in the world and has nothing to do with why the National Public Health Emergency Team has recommended a phased approach to living with the virus.

He said the idea that public health measures are being brought in because of a lack of testing and tracing "is factually incorrect and a cynical ploy by some".

He said turnaround times and capacity are doing very well and the HSE will continue to build on the system by re-deploying frontline workers to clinical roles and hiring an additional 3,000 people to work on the testing and tracing system.

He said that "time will show ... that public health doctors have steered us right".