Minister for Health Simon Harris has described the fact that abortion services will be available from tomorrow as momentous.

Mr Harris said, as 80% of terminations would take place in the community, he was satisfied that the estimated 165 GPs who have signed up to provide the service was enough to meet demand. 

He said a helpline which opens from midnight tonight is adequately staffed, and that while it would take time for the service to fully evolve and embed, the services on offer tomorrow will be so much better than what is available to women today.

The National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street in Dublin last week said it will accept referrals for abortion services from 7 January.

It says it will accept such referrals from its catchment area of south Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare.

Referrals will have to be from GPs or organisations such as the Irish Family Planning Association.

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President Michael D Higgins signed the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill, which legalises abortion in Ireland, on 20 December.

Other hospitals which have committed to providing services as soon as possible include the Rotunda, Dublin; Cork University Maternity Hospital; University Hospital Galway; Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda; University Maternity Hospital, Limerick; The Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar; Mayo University Hospital; and University Hospital Waterford.

HSE says fewer patients on hospital trolleys

Meanwhile, the number of people on trolleys in hospital is down 34% on the same day last year.

The latest briefing by the Health Service Executive's Winter Oversight Group said 223 people are waiting in emergency departments for beds around the country.

Mr Harris said the lower rate of flu and the investment in homecare packages, which helped reduce the number of delayed discharges, had helped contribute to the reduction in numbers.

The minister also rejected reports that 'winter ready' clinics had not begun operating yet.

He said the term 'clinic' suggested that it was a building but the term actually referred to a service.

He said public health nurses and community outreach teams have been targeting at-risk people in the communities by providing them with flu vaccines and advice.

He said there will be a surge in demand for services in the coming weeks but that he was asking members of the public to help ease pressure on services by attending emergency departments for just emergencies.

According to figures released by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation this morning, there were 357 patients waiting for beds; 228 waiting in the emergency department, while 129 in wards elsewhere in the hospital.

It said the worst-hit hospitals today are University Hospital Limerick with 43 patients waiting, South Tipperary General Hospital with 39, and University Hospital Galway with 33.