Hospital consultants, nurses and other medical professionals should not be on extended holidays over Christmas and the first two weeks of January to ensure that every hospital bed is open, the Taoiseach has told the Dáil.

Leo Varadkar was being quizzed by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin about the shortage of hospital beds.

He acknowledged that there had been a problem with overcrowding in emergency departments for two decades, and that previous standard winter plans including additional home help, home care and transitional care had not worked.

The Taoiseach noted that between 22 December this year and 3 January next year, there were 12 days, seven of which would be Sundays, Saturdays or bank holidays.

He said that over the last 10-15 years, hospitals effectively closed down for those seven days out of twelve.

He told the Dáil: "We need to make sure, for the first time ever, that during that period the radiology departments and labs are open and working at full whack, that consultants are not on holidays in the first week of the year, particularly those who work in the emergency departments and that nurses are not on leave in the first two weeks of January."

Mr Martin noted revelations in the Irish Times that €50 million that was due to be spent on additional beds last year had instead been used to address excessive spending in 2017.

He asked why the money had not been spent as intended, and sought details of the plan for the forthcoming winter period.

Mr Varadkar said that speaking as a doctor and a grandson, he did not want to see any citizens or patients spending prolonged amounts of time on trolleys waiting for hospital beds.

He said the system was improving, and criticised Fianna Fáil's record of cutting hospital bed numbers during the economic boom.

The President of the Irish Medical Organisation Peadar Gilligan described the Taoiseach's comments as disappointing, adding that that "level of antagonism" was not helpful.

He said what would be helpful would be to ensure that there was adequate capacity in the health service to provide care to patients - both in terms of hospital beds and staffing.

He stressed that every Emergency Department would be open over the holiday period, adding that many patients requiring elective or scheduled procedures did not want to be in hospital over Christmas.

He also reiterated a call to address the two-tier pay system for consultants recruited since 2012, some of whom are earning 30% less than their pre-2012 colleagues.

The INMO said they had no comment on the Taoiseach's remarks.