Thousands of people gathered in Limerick city centre to take part in a march protesting continued overcrowding at University Hospital Limerick.

It was part of a national day of action, organised by groups around the country, to protest overcrowding in emergency departments.

Marches and demonstrations took place in Limerick, Navan and a number of locations around the country.

Campaign groups are calling for increased capacity in hospital emergency departments and to stop downgrading services at others.

The Limerick protest was organised by the Mid West Hospital Campaign, along with Friends of Ennis Hospital and groups from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, with some estimates saying more than 10,000 people have attended.

They are protesting about the consistent overcrowding at the region's only emergency department at UHL - the most overcrowded emergency department in the country.

There was a minutes silence at the start to remember the 126 people who were waiting on trolleys last April - the highest daily figure ever recorded at the hospital.

People also brought pictures of their loved ones who had suffered in overcrowded conditions, and some who had died at UHL.

Protesters said they are angry and fearful that this is going on so long and are calling for a reversal of the decision taken in 2009 to downgrade 24-hour services at Ennis, Nenagh and St John's hospitals.

They say this lead to an escalation of the congestion at UHL, without sufficient resources to handle the inevitable increase in admissions from three counties.

The HSE has said the flu virus which led to unprecedented admissions at UHL this month had eased and they regret greatly the impact on patients and staff.

Minister for Health Stephan Donnelly said he and his officials are engaging regularly with the HSE about the emergency department situation to improve access for patients and support healthcare workers.

Another demonstration took place at Our Lady's Hospital, Navan to protest the downgrading of services there.

Local Sinn Féin TD Johnny Guirke said that people were concerned when they see what has happened in Limerick.

"We don't want that happening here, we want to protect and enhance services here," he said.

"When we see what's happening in UHL, the closed EDs in Nenagh and Ennis and the chaos that happened there. We don't want Meath people being put at risk by bypassing the hospital.

"We need investment in services here."

Protests also took place in Cork, Galway, Cavan, Donegal, Sligo and Westmeath, all with a similar message to the Government and the Health Service Executive.

Action committee to be formed in Donegal

An action committee will be formed following a rally of between 150 and 200 people at Letterkenny University Hospital.

Local Aontú candidate Mary T Sweeney introduced several speakers, adding that people should not tolerate a health system which is "mismanaged" and where there are too many people in management.

There were calls for more investment and more support for hospital staff.

Others complained that men from the northwest region should not have to travel to University Hospital Galway for prostate cancer services while the services should be already in place in Letterkenny.

Another speaker who trains and works in Altnagelvin hospital in Co Derry said that people from Donegal are coming across the border every day for emergency services due to the lack of service available in the county.

'A broken system'

Minister of State for Law Reform James Browne said €24 billion is being invested into the health service this year.

"We've seen deficient investment for a significant amount of time and we are now seeing record investment in capacity," he said.

Speaking on RTÉ's Saturday with Colm Ó Mongáin, he said health workers have done tremendous work.

"These patients who are on trolleys should not be going through what they're doing. Nobody can stand over it, not the Government, not the HSE and not the healthcare workers," he added.

Kathleen Funcheon, Sinn Féin TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, said that both a short-term and long-term plan is needed for hospitals.

"When we're saying 350 people on trolleys is nearly a good day I have to wonder how have we gotten to that stage and 2023 in this country?" she said

Speaking on the same programme, she said the Government needed to look at getting more capacity in the private system, but said this is not a sustainable long-term plan.

"For people who are in serious emergency situations or in pain or those who had elective procedures put off which is going to result in a lot more difficulties for them," she said.

"We need to look at how we can treat that and by accessing some additional beds in private hospitals, we need to do that as a short-term measure," she added.

Gary Gannon, Social Democrats TD for Dublin Central, said the overcrowding crisis is causing the loss of lives.

He said that one in every €40 of taxpayer's money is going into a health service, but added: "We can't keep throwing money into a broken system."

On reopening closed emergency departments for 24-hours, he said that if it was a short-term measure that takes pressure off the system and saves lives then the Social Democrats would support it.

Additonal reporting Ailbhe Ó Monacháin