The Minister for Health has said he wants to see a new Sláintecare public-only contract for hospital consultants "concluded by the end of the year".

Stephen Donnelly made the comments in an address at the annual conference of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association in Dublin today.

He said the talks on a new deal, under which consultants would only treat public patients in public hospitals as part of a new universal healthcare system, are "currently in train".

Minister Donnelly told the delegates that he convened the talks "in order to come to an agreeable solution on a new and attractive public-only contract".

He admitted there had been "a rocky start several months ago," but he said he appointed an independent chairperson and "several issues were dealt with which had caused understandable frustration and the issue of pay equity could be considered within the framework of the talks".

The Minister said there had been "constructive engagement" this week and "more intensive engagement" was planned for the coming days.

He told members of the IHCA that he was "keen to see a new contract agreed within weeks", adding "achieving universal healthcare in Ireland is one of the most important projects of our time."

In the address, Mr Donnelly said the consultant cohort needs to be increased significantly to meet the demands ahead.

He acknowledged there have been "significant recruitment and retention issues in respect of consultants, particularly in certain specialties and locations."

"Progress is being made but it is not happening as quickly as I would like," he added.

The Minister said over the past five years, 700 hospital consultant posts have been filled, with just over half in the past two years.

However, he said HSE data indicates that "approximately 250 posts are not filled".

Stephen Donnelly also told the consultants conference that "urgent action is needed" to reduce waiting times, which he said is "a top priority".

He said the waiting lists have "unacceptably high for many years" and he said they have worsened as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cyber-attack on the HSE.

"If we are to succeed in tackling this problem, a coordinated effort across the whole of the Health Service, both public and private, is needed," he said.

"We must do things differently than we have in the past. We must innovate and we must be bold and disruptive in our thinking."