General manager of Letterkenny University Hospital Sean Murphy has said that they face a challenging time for at least the next couple of weeks.

Earlier today, LUH apologised to patients who had to wait in ambulances outside before being admitted to the hospital yesterday.

Mr Murphy said the situation at the hospital arose at the end of an extremely busy week which continued into the weekend and peaked yesterday.

There was particular pressure in respect of Covid-19 and suspected Covid cases and the need to find beds for these patients. 

Mr Murphy said there was a delay in offloading ambulances as all the beds were full in the Emergency Department and a decision was made to triage patients in the ambulances.

He said there were a lot of very ill patients that required admission, not just with Covid but with other medical and surgical conditions.

Paying tribute to staff at the hospital, Mr Murphy said many responded to the call to come in and they were able to open up 11 extra beds.

By 9pm last night, they were still extremely busy but there was a flow of patients. 

One of the main problems for LUH is staff shortages and the resulting inability to staff beds.

Mr Murphy said there are still over 170 staff members absent due to Covid and almost 90 Covid-positive patients in the hospital.

He said they are seeing more Covid patients and very sick patients coming to hospital and he does not expect that to change in the short term.

Asked how the hospital will cope with this, Mr Murphy said it was very reliant on the professionalism and commitment of staff with many doing extra hours, changing shifts at short notice and moving departments to facilitate the delivery of emergency care. 

Mr Murphy also appealed to the public to help the situation by contacting their GP in the first instance and only going to the ED in an emergency situation.

He said that throughout the next number of days, LUH will be focusing on treating patients as promptly and quickly as possible and maximising bed capacity.

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INMO Industrial Relations Officer for the Northwest, Neal Donohue, called on the Health Service Executive to initiate its major emergency plan.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland he said staff at LUH have been trying to work extra shifts to try to cope with demand.

Mr Donohue said the problem with lack of staff, some of whom have Covid-19, was compounded by the school closures as staff were being instructed to take annual leave if they do not have childcare.

The CEO of the Saolta Univeristy Health Care Group said the whole system is under huge pressure, but so far he does not expect to derogate healthcare staff who are close contacts of Covid-19, but who do not have symptoms, and bring them back to work.

Tony Canavan said this was being monitored on a day-by-day basis and will be a last resort because of the risks associated with it.

He said pressure on LUH increased steadily over the weekend from Friday evening to a point where clinical teams decided it was best to access patients in ambulances, but said no patient was left at risk.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, an appeal was issued to staff at the South West Acute hospital in Enniskillen last night for them to go directly to the hospital due to increasing pressures from Covid-19.

Northern Ireland's health chiefs have warned that the number of people with Covid-19 in hospital will double by the third week of January compared to the current figures.

The prediction was made in a joint statement by the chief executives of the region's six health and social care trusts.

The health chiefs said the surge in expected hospital admissions cannot be solved by creating more beds because the staff are not there to care for increased numbers of patients.

Additional reporting Laura Hogan, PA