The State's only air ambulance, which is used to take people to hospital in emergencies, will be shut down for 16 days between now and February due to mounting staffing and training problems, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

The Department of Defence has confirmed the situation to RTÉ News, saying the four existing Irish Coast Guard helicopters will be asked to fill in during the winter period - potentially causing further issues elsewhere in the system.

Since 2012, the Air Corps has used the Athlone-based AC112 air ambulance helicopter to ensure seriously ill people can be rushed to hospital in emergency situations.

The helicopter is often used for car crashes, to transport people in rural areas, and when a patient needs to be quickly transferred from one hospital to another for specialist care.

Last year alone, the service was involved in 159 responses to serious car crashes, 146 other medical emergencies and 15 urgent transports of children to hospital.

In recent months concerns have been raised over staffing level issues relating to the service.

This included Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (RACO)'s general secretary Commandant Conor King telling delegates and Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe at the group's conference in September while the service has saved "countless lives" it is now "on the brink of collapse". 

The concerns have been described as manageable by other officials. 

However, in a statement to RTE News today, the Department of Defence confirmed the air ambulance will not operate for 16 days between late November and February due to staffing and training issues. 

"Notwithstanding the well-documented on-going HR challenges in the Air Corps, in particular the recruitment and retention of pilots, the Emergency Aeromedical Service (EAS) has been delivered since 2012 without interruption.

"However, on foot of recent military advice, the Air Corps will not be in a position to accept EAS taskings by the national ambulance service for four days per month for a period of four months starting in November 2019 and ending in February 2020," a Department of Defence spokesperson said. 

"During those 16 days when the Air Corps are not accepting taskings, the Irish Coast Guard will provide reserve cover to the national ambulance service. 

"This is line with the 2015 Government decision establishing the Emergency Aeromedical Service. 

"The Irish Community Rapid Response (ICRR) charity Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) based in the south of the country will continue to be available and the potential for it to provide increased support is also being explored.

"The priority is to provide the best service possible using all available resources during the four-day periods each month when the Air Corps are not available for EAS taskings.

"This interruption is regrettable but necessary from a safety and governance perspective. The safety of serving personnel, HSE staff and patients is the shared number one priority and our whole focus is returning the EAS service to full capacity," the spokesperson said.

It is understood the staffing and training issues relate specifically to the make-up of the air ambulance crew - which includes pilots and advanced paramedics - at any time.

While the Irish Coast Guard will be asked to fill in for the air ambulance during the period in question, those working in the service have noted this will potential cause further issues as the Coast Guard has four helicopters for the entire country.

In a separate statement, a HSE spokesperson said: "The national ambulance service, as per normal, reviews contingency plans to eliminate any risk that may be posed to care delivery and have engaged with other agencies on this matter.  

"Discussions are ongoing at present and, as this is an air asset, the matter is complex and complicated. The priority is to ensure availability and safety for patients and staff."