Hospitals could be forced to deal with up to 26,000 extra admissions due to a major swine flu pandemic here, placing a significant strain on the health service and leading to the postponement of thousands of elective surgeries.
The HSE's head of population health Dr Pat Doorley told the Sunday Tribune that the current "worst-case" scenario could see up to 26,000 extra hospital admissions during the expected 15-week peak swine flu period.
As a result, health chiefs have drawn up contingency plans to cancel thousands of non-urgent and elective surgeries, redeploy medical staff from other areas, and improve 'bed-management' by discharging patients from hospital early if necessary.
However, the Irish Nurses' Organisation (INO) has warned that the health system "simply couldn't cope" with this level of admissions.
HSE figures reveal that around 2,900 elective or non- urgent procedures are carried out in general hospitals every week.
Dr Doorley acknowledged it may also be necessary to cancel operations such as hip-replacements. This would mean people who have already endured lengthy waiting lists would be faced with further delays.
It is understood that the HSE has recently held discussions with private hospitals to establish what extra capacity, if any, they can provide.
"We could have between 13,000 and 26,000 extra admissions over the 15-week peak period," Dr Doorley said. "This is something we should be able to manage through measures such as better bed management, better use of clinicians and other initiatives."
But INO deputy general secretary Dave Hughes said hospital emergency departments are "as crowded now as they are in the winter".
Some 800 people in acute hospitals are currently awaiting discharge but cannot leave because they have nowhere to go, he said.
"This is all due to cutbacks such as ward closures and letting nurses on short-term contracts go. It's impossible. The health service simply couldn't cope with an extra 26,000 admissions."
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Dublin Airport Authority said it was "not up to DAA staff" to determine who has swine flu or to give or deny permission to fly. She declined to "speculate" as to whether the airport may be required to close due to swine flu.
If a passenger on an aircraft has swine flu, "the aircraft will be contained with all passengers on board until a HSE doctor has examined the passenger," she added.