risk assessment | 

Prisons, ambulances, fire service and retail: How Covid has workplaces scrambling for staff

HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

HSE chief operations officer Anne O’Connor. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Conor Feehan

It was a week when the number of Covid cases soared beyond all previous records. Every day tens of thousands of people were told they were confirmed cases, or that they were a close contact. For many, their ability to work was curtailed, even if they had no symptoms.

But concern grew deeper as the week continued, with cases spiralling past the 20,000 daily mark.

Businesses and essential services were united in concern that the number of absences from the workforce would pose a major problem, particularly after the Christmas break.

Changes to the isolation regime announced by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on Thursday evening will help mitigate the impact but will not solve the problem.

Earlier that day the National Ambulance Service put out an urgent call for staff as it was hampered by members out sick in the greater Dublin and Leinster regions.

The HSE and the Prison Service, which have been hit with rising staff absences as community transmission of Covid spiked in recent days, are operating a ‘derogation’ system which could relax the self-isolation rules for some workers based on a strict risk assessment.

The news came as Dublin Fire Brigade said that up to 15pc of its emergency crews had not been able to work over Christmas.

“Dublin Fire Brigade, like other organisations, has seen an increasing negative impact on staffing levels as a result of Covid-19,” said a spokesman for Dublin City Council, which oversees the operation of the brigade.

HSE c hief o perations o fficer Anne O’Connor said she expected absences from work to deteriorate in the coming weeks due to an increasing level of community transmission of the virus.

The HSE takes counts every fortnight of those absent due to Covid. There were 3,800 at the last count before Christmas, which was an improvement on the 5,000 the fortnight earlier.

Ms O’Connor said the HSE was seeing some of its sites challenged now in terms of beds, and not being able to open as a result of staffing challenges.

“We do expect that that will deteriorate over the coming weeks. Our sites are preparing for that, we have a derogation in place for healthcare workers, based on a risk assessment so that people can come to work when they are close contacts subject to these checks and measures being put in place,” she said.

“But clearly, we can’t run the health service without staff and, as we’ve always said, the higher the level of community transmission, the more risk there is of some of our staff also being off work.”

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) this week called on the HSE to publish and implement a Plan B for dealing with what it called a capacity crisis. It also called for all activity except urgent emergency care to be curtailed in our public hospital system.

“From experience we know that if there are 287 patients for whom there is no bed in a hospital on December 30, we know that figure will be tripled in early January. It is time now to scale back all activity within our public hospital system to emergency activity only ,” said INMO g eneral s ecretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha. “Our public health service is too small to try to provide emergency care, Covid care and carry out elective treatments. Urgent elective work must be prioritised through the private hospital system.

“We know that there are high levels of staff absences due to Covid-related leave, anecdotally we are being told many hospitals are having problems completing rotas.

“Our creaking health service is currently being held together by the goodwill of nurses and midwives who are cancelling annual leave and staying beyond their rostered time to ensure that wards are staffed. ”

The Irish Prison Service confirmed a number of staff and prisoners have tested positive for Covid-19 in Mountjoy, Midlands and Portlaoise prisons.

“Given the high rate of staff positives detected in Wheatfield Prison, Public Health are in agreement with the Outbreak Control Team for a third round of staff testing. To date, there are currently no positive prisoners in Wheatfield Prison and both physical/video visits remain in operation under strict infection control measures,” said a prisons spokesman.

“The s ervice is working closely with Public Health, HSE with regard to the management of the current outbreaks including the testing arrangements of staff and prisoners if required.”

A prison source said staff absences across the prisons were high because of Covid, mirroring what is happening in the community in general.

“A derogation system similar to the one being used by the HSE could see some staff return to work after careful assessment,” they said.

While An Garda Síochána has not supplied figures, it has said that, in line with the trend among the general population, the current impact of Covid-19 is “more significant at this time”.

“Since the commencement of the Covid-19 pandemic An Garda Síochána has not provided commentary on the individual status of members of An Garda Síochána or individual Garda stations/ sections,” a spokesman said.

“An Garda Síochána maintains effective operational resilience.”

In Northern Ireland more than one-fifth of PSNI officers were not able to work due to Covid symptoms, with many districts working with just a skeleton staff covering busy holiday shifts.

Meanwhile, the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) has called for an easing of close-contact guidelines so that hospitality staff could be treated as essential workers and allowed to return to work after five days in order to ease staffing shortages in the sector.

It said the current close contact guidelines were having a “huge impact” on many businesses which were struggling to stay open.

The retail sector has also felt the force of infection and close contact absences in recent weeks and this has left retailers with a “significant challenge” in trying to remain open amid staff shortages.

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