Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has acknowledged that there are problems with recruitment and retention of pilots in the Air Corps, but he has insisted that the problems are being dealt with.

He was responding to the revelation that the Department of Defence is to withdraw the Athlone-based air ambulance operated by the Air Corps for 16 days between now and the end of February due to training and staff shortage issues.

Speaking this afternoon in Cork, Mr Varadkar said the country's emergency services are better resourced now than they have ever been.

He said that five or six years ago there was no air ambulance in the country and now there are two.

One of those services is operated by the Air Corps and is based in Athlone, the other is a charity-run service operated by Irish Community Rapid Response and is based near Millstreet in Co Cork.

Irish Community Rapid Response is to temporarily transfer its back-up helicopter to a new base in Roscommon for four days per month to provide cover on the days when the Air Corps helicopter ambulance will be unavailable.

Mr Varadkar described the recruitment and retention of pilots in the Air Corps as a real challenge, but he said every air corps and air force across the Western world was experiencing similar problems and Ireland was not unique.

He said the Government had responded by putting a retention bonus in place for pilots who stay in the service, and there were pilots now returning to the Air Corps from the private sector, which was not permitted in the past.

He said there were also cadets who were currently being trained, and that training would require the Air Corps air ambulance to come off service for four days per month, "only for the next four months".

Mr Varadkar accepted that the situation was not ideal, but said he did not believe lives would be put at risk.


Read more: Is the air rescue service being stretched too far?


Run on €2m of funds raised annually by the community, the Irish Rapid Response air ambulance service only came into operation last August and has already completed hundreds of missions dealing with road accidents and medical emergencies in the south of the country.

But now the base's second relief helicopter and its crew will move north to the new base at Roscommon University Hospital for four days a month.

Instead of operating with 10 crews of experienced flying staff, it is understood the Department of Defence can now only call on three "active and ready" units to fly the helicopter based at the Custume Military barracks in Athlone.

There has been increased pressure on senior officers to put their own supervisory duties to one side and go onto "on-call" duty themselves, leaving their posts at Baldonnel to head to Athlone to operate the service for four days at a time.

In face of severe warnings that the day-to-day management of the service and its critical training regime could not continue under these circumstances, the Department of Defence has taken urgent measures to withdraw the Athlone-based service for four days of duty each month from November onward.

It will allow staff to catch up on training and key operation issues, leaving the coast guard and the new community service based in Cork to come to the rescue in the meantime to support the emergency services.

The Millstreet-based air ambulance will deal with accidents and emergencies with the help of the four Irish coast guard helicopters during the winter period.

The move has been questioned by political representatives in the south and the west who have expressed concern over new demands for cover elsewhere on the island in this period.

It is understood the Cork-based service will be in a position to operate at night unlike the service it is replacing in Athlone but there are concerns too over the accessibility to sites in rural areas where the coast guard service may experience difficulties in landing safely.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil has said lives are being put at risk with the grounding of the air ambulance operated by the Defence Forces in Athlone for 16 days over winter.

The party's spokesman on defence Jack Chambers said structures in the Defence Forces were collapsing and the exodus of personnel was accelerating.

He asked what contingency arrangements are in place for people who may need medical attention.

Additional reporting Ciaran Mullooly