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'wasn't informed' Taoiseach says he learned of HSE decision to ask Covid-19 victims to trace own contacts via text

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Taoiseach Micheal Martin was questioned about a problem with the contact tracing system during Leaders’ Questions (PA)

Taoiseach Micheal Martin was questioned about a problem with the contact tracing system during Leaders’ Questions (PA)

Taoiseach Micheal Martin was questioned about a problem with the contact tracing system during Leaders’ Questions (PA)

Taoiseach Micheal Martin has said he was not informed of the HSE’s decision to ask Covid victims to trace their own contacts.

Mr Martin said the first he knew of it was when he received a text message on Tuesday afternoon with the attachment of a newspaper report that said the infected had been asked to alert their own contacts to their medical status.

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions today, Mr Martin said: “I got a text last evening which included the Irish Times article, that’s when I first knew.

“I wasn’t informed of this operational measure that the HSE undertook in response to the extraordinary demands they were under at the weekend in the context of the community tracing."

There was nothing “secretive” about it, and it would have come out in public anyway, he said, but it would be better if bodies announced such matters publicly, he said.

But the Taoiseach also told the Dáil the numbers of people involved in contact tracing would double over coming months, after the collapse of its real-time capacity to alert all those possibly infected.

He said it was intended to establish a “permanent workforce” in tracking and tracing of up to 1,000 staff, and there would be no financial object.

Test and trace were key weapons in dealing with the pandemic into the future, he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Ireland needed to come out of the coming six-week lockdown with a ‘gold standard’ contract tracing system that tracked down every close associate within 24 hours.

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly said it was obvious the Taoiseach had not been aware of deficiencies in the tracing problems until recently.

But it was “bonkers” and “absolutely ridiculous” to ask people who could be in hospital “or in intensive care, for all we know” to track their own close contacts, he said.

Mr Martin replied that when the Covid-19 level infection rose to exponential levels, as had happened in Ireland, there was no system in the world that would not

“We are recruiting very fast. We have been recruiting since August,” he said.

The Sinn Féin leader, Ms McDonald, said: “Today between 2,000-2,500 people will receive a text from the HSE, asking them to tell their own close contacts of their positive test, and to ask those close contacts to contact their GP to seek a test.

“You are asking people who have an infection to do the work of tracers,” she said.

“I think this is a sure recipe for infections being missed and further outbreaks not being fought in time.”

She added: “I do not accept your failure to put in place the necessary staff and resources because the warning signs were there.”

Two weeks ago there had been an alarm sounded that there were not enough traces and the regional system was ‘close to collapse,’ she said.

Failure to get this right would result in a cycle of damaging lockdowns, Ms McDonald claimed.

“We lose control of the virus when testing and tracing doesn’t work.”

Promises had been made in July and September that further recruitment would happen, she said. “We need to get to a point where there is a 24-hour turnaround for testing and a 24-hour turnaround for contact tracing.”

The Taoiseach said that the Government, since it came into office in June, had been determined to built up its testing and tracing capacity.

On testing, Ireland is now at 120,000 weekly capacity, he said, although he accepted that the contract tracing system had come under extreme pressure last weekend.

Testing capacity would expand further in November and December, and there was extra capacity in Germany, he said, while 98 per cent of people who had a test got their result within 24 hours.

A further 93 per cent of callers to a GP got a testing appointment that day or the next day, the Taoiseach said.

There are 400 now employed in contract tracing, the Taoiseach said.

“There will be 220 (staff) added before the end of next week and ongoing."

Occupational therapists and physios had been drafted into the tracing system but had since returned to their word, he said.

But 700 candidates for the work were now through the interview process.

“They (the HSE) want to bring in 60 to 70 new people every week, ultimately to get to 800 tracers, and close to 1,000,” he said.

Mr Kelly said there were “hundreds of thousands” of competent people who could have been recruited, while the Defence Forces were also there.

“We need bandwidth and elasticity, and that didn’t happen. It is bloody well not acceptable,” he said.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said she was shocked the Taoiseach had found out about the failure by text and not by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.

People were being left with “DIY” message about tracing others who were possibly infecting new people in turn. If there were five contacts for each people told to trace their own contacts, there were 10,000 people involved, she said.

“We need an absolute assurance that there will be a competent system in place after this lockdown,” she said. “I would have thought you would be fully informed by the people who need to inform you.

“Two thousand people are being asked to DIY contract trace. That is not good enough, Surely you accept that is not good enough,” she told Mr Martin.

The Taoiseach said the HSE had now been reconfigured to be able to deal with 1,500 infections per day.

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