The Government and the Health Service Executive are forecasting "an extremely busy time for the health services" in the coming weeks, with flu cases expected to surge.

The prediction comes as figures show a more than 50% fall in the number of people on trolleys awaiting admission to a hospital bed.

The statistics, from the Irish Nurses and Midwives' Organisation, indicate there were 166 people on trolleys in emergency departments today.

This compares to a figure of 347 on this day last year.

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A similar report from the HSE shows there were 111 people waiting for admission to a bed this morning as of 8am, down by almost 51% on the same day in 2017.

Minister for Health Simon Harris says circumstances like the mild weather and the low flu numbers are helping but he says "so too is the investment that we made".

Both the Government and the HSE are forecasting "an extremely busy time for the health services" in the coming weeks, with flu cases expected to surge.

They are appealing to people to keep Emergency Departments for emergencies and to use the appropriate locations for the appropriate conditions.

People are also again being urged to avail of the flu vaccination.

Hospital support staff to be balloted for strike action

Meanwhile, more than 7,000 support staff in hospitals and healthcare centres across the country are to be balloted for strike action over a pay dispute.

SIPTU, which represents the workers, is accusing the Government of breaching the Public Sector Stability Agreement.

The union says its members, which include Health Care Assistants, Maternity Care Assistants, Laboratory Aides and Surgical Instrument Technicians, have been underpaid for years.

SIPTU claims that in some cases, the underpayment amounts to up to €6,000 a year.

The union says the Government is "refusing to concede to an increase awarded to them through an independent job evaluation process" that was carried out under the terms of the pay deal.

SIPTU has also accused the Government and the HSE of "ignoring requests to engage with its representatives" to discuss the issue.

The ballot for the industrial action is due to take place next month.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says if there is a strike, it will be the patients who will lose out.

He said: "We do have a mechanism under the public pay agreement that we've made with unions to resolve these disputes and I'm confident that mechanism can be used."

"We will do everything we can to make sure that staff can get a fair hearing," he added.