Talks are currently underway between the Department of Health and the Department of Justice in an effort to avoid an out-of-hours emergency care crisis in the south west this Christmas.

This would be averted by enabling family doctors to travel from South Africa to Ireland to provide cover in local practices during the festive season.

A long standing arrangement has seen GPs from South Africa travel to Kerry and Cork in particular to provide additional emergency and out-of-hours cover at evenings and weekends.

However, the emergence of the latest Covid-19 variant, Omicron, has seen the introduction of restrictions for those travelling to Ireland from South Africa.

This has resulted in doctors, who had been scheduled to work in Kerry and Cork during the Christmas period, being prevented from travelling to work in Ireland.

GP services in rural and Gaeltacht regions had already been under severe pressure prior to the emergence of Covid 19.

Now after almost two years of the pandemic, doctors in these regions say the situation is untenable and this latest turn of events has stretched them to the absolute limit.

Dr Conor Brosnan, of Dingle Medical Centre, said services are under excess pressure as it is and if locum doctors cannot travel from South Africa to provide cover during the Christmas break, patient safety could be threatened.

"Everyone has a right to out-of-hours services but the situation which has currently arisen due to the Omicron variant will inevitably lead to a reduction in services and potentially compromise patient care," he said.

"Last week I worked 80 hours, and that is not a safe situation for doctors nor for patients. Without locum cover, in Dingle for example, that could mean the only option open to someone in distress would be to attend A&E in Tralee [a distance of 50kms] and that's not good enough."

Killarney-based Dr Gary Stack, medical director of SouthDoc, the out-of-hours and weekend emergency service in the Cork and Kerry region, said that up to 70% of cover provided within SouthDoc at night is by doctors from South Africa.

Kerry Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin has said he is in talks with the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and the Department of Health in an effort to get some sort of provision to enable family doctors to travel to Ireland from South Africa thus fulfilling their arrangements to provide cover in GP practices over the Christmas period.

In a statement issued to RTÉ News this evening, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice said that visas must be processed in accordance with public health regulations, which are a matter for the Department of Health.

The spokesperson added that the "Department [of Justice] is in ongoing discussions with the Department of Health on this matter, in order to find an appropriate resolution".