Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has revealed that more than 622,000 people are waiting for an outpatient appointment and 81,000 people are waiting on in-patient or day case appointments, 22% higher than this time last year.

Appearing before the Oireachtas Health Committee this afternoon, Mr Donnelly told TDs and Senators that Covid-19 has exacerbated an already challenging situation.

He said that it is the intention of the HSE to keep the planned levels of activity, performance and reform, as set out in the National Service Plan, under close review.

The chair of the HSE board will update the minister on the plan next month.

The HSE is seeing a 95% reduction in Covid infection rates for healthcare staff.

Mr Donnelly told the Health Committee that the HSE's chief clinical officer is citing a 95% reduction in cases in hospital staff due to both the impact of the vaccine and the drop in community transmission. 

Fine Gael TD Colm Burke said staff were tired and drained and he asked how they were being supported. 

Mr Donnelly said staff were exhausted and they had been asked again and again to step up. He said they deserved huge credit, but thanking them was not enough.

Significant increase in genome sequencing of Covid-19 tests, says Donnelly

Mr Donnelly said there has been a very significant increase in genome sequencing of positive Covid-19 tests.

He told the committee that the number has risen from 1% of positive tests being genome sequenced to 15%. Mr Donnelly said that it is hoped that this can increase further.

On the issue of student nurse pay, Mr Donnelly reiterated his desire to implement the Pandemic Placement Grant (PPG) of €100 per week, non-taxable, for student nurses.

Following a review, by Professor Tom Collins, it was recommended that this payment would be made available to student nurses and would be backdated to September 2020.

However, Mr Donnelly told the committee that discussions around the PPG, with representative bodies, are ongoing to see if they want to accept this grant.

Mr Donnelly said he would like to reach an agreed position as soon as possible.

He also told the committee that a second review has started, which he hopes will be complete by the start of the next academic year, September 2021.

This review would have a broader remit and would look at the clinical placement themselves.

Sinn Féin health spokesperson, David Cullinane, told the Minister that he understood why unions were unhappy with the PPG and that many considered it "as slap in the face".

He asked the Minister if he would be willing to accept the "March agreement".

Asked to clarify what he meant by this; Deputy Cullinane explained that it would see student nurses from first to third year offered temporary contracts and fourth-year interns would be paid the same as a healthcare assistant.

Mr Donnelly said clinical placements were stopped last March. He said that about one in three students were then employed as healthcare assistants.

Minister Donnelly said a "large majority" of the over 85s will have their first dose by the end of the week.  

Around 500,000 vaccines will have been administered by the end of the week out of 520,000 vaccines received. 

He also said NPHET is very positive about Vitamin D generally but it does not believe there is evidence proving a link to resistance to Covid-19. 

The priority of family carers within the vaccination programme is now being reviewed by NIAC as it examines the key workers group, he said.

HSE promises to improve access to services in three-year plan

Meanwhile, the HSE has published a three-year corporate plan which promises to improve access to services.

It said it wanted to make significant progress towards achieving waiting times of 10 weeks for a new outpatient appointment, 12 weeks for an appointment for a procedure and 10 days for diagnostics.

Paul Reid, HSE chief, said it would be wrong to say that the service will achieve those targets within three years of the plan but that this was the journey the HSE was setting out now.

Paul Reid

"We know we are so far off the mark right now from the starting point we are at," he said in a media briefing on the corporate plan which covers 2021-2024.

He said that the HSE will look at the best use of the €240m access to care fund for this year and €125m from the National Treatment Purchase Fund. 

The corporate plan says that due to reduced capacity while operating in a Covid-19 environment, it is crucial that actions are taken to prevent lengthening waiting lists and waiting times.

It also cites the Sláintecare Report which recommends the growth of the general Government health budget by 7% a year at a minimum for each of the three years of the plan. That would amount to €1.2bn annually.

No overall single cost has been provided for the three-year plan.

Ciarán Devane, chairperson of the HSE Board, said that the HSE wants to provide the highest quality care and timely access to services and treatments for everybody in Ireland.

The plan says the HSE must ensure the health system is easy to understand, is rationally organised and that the funding is always spent wisely on the right things.

It is the first corporate plan since the formal establishment of the HSE Board in June 2019.

Additional reporting: Sandra Hurley, Fergal Bowers