A significant upgrade of surgical facilities at Ennis, Nenagh and St John’s hospitals to relieve pressure on University Hospital Limerick (UHL) is to be considered by the cabinet following a Dáil debate on the overcrowding crisis.

The issue was raised by Clare Fine Gael TD Joe Carey who said that “more can and must be done” with Ennis, Nenagh and St. John’s to alleviate the record levels of overcrowding at UHL, particularly with the onset of the winter months.

He identified Ennis as a “vital cog in the wheel” and welcomed the fact that Clare County Council recently granted planning permission for a new outpatient department off the Kilrush Road.

“We need to see further investment in Ennis hospital, particularly in surgical theatres, and an expansion in the opening hours of the medical assessment unit and minor injuries clinics.

Agreeing with the proposal to upgrade facilities at the smaller hospitals to relieve the burden at UHL, Minister of State Finian McGrath, who was deputising for Health Minister Simon Harris, said that he would convey that view at cabinet and to the Minister.

With around 67,000 attendances last year, Minister McGrath said that the emergency department at UHL was one of the busiest in the country and demand continued to rise, with a six per cent increase recorded over the past twelve months.

“The national development plan includes provision for a 96-bed replacement ward block at UHL for which the HSE has provided capital funding to progress to the design phase. However it is currently anticipated that construction is unlikely to commence before 2021.

“Given the pressure on emergency departments, the HSE has proposed that around 600 additional acute beds and 290 additional residential care beds be phased in over the next two years. These proposals include a 60-bed modular unit at UHL,” Minister McGrath explained.

Referring to the continuing problem of overcrowding at UHL, Deputy Carey said that in the past two months alone, 900 patients were waiting on trolleys, the highest number recorded in the country.

“There are many contributory factors to this, including that some surgical theatres and consultants are not available seven days a week, but the major issue is a lack of acute bed capacity in the region. Management at UHL had put forward two projects to boost bed capacity, with the 60-bed modular unit and a new 96-bed block,” he added.