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Sam Boal
awaiting result

What's behind the delay in announcing a plan for subsidised antigen testing?

Taoiseach Micheál Martin would not pin down a date for when a decision on the scheme will be made.

IT’S NEARLY TWO weeks since the public were told by health experts that if they are attending bars, restaurants and other indoor environments with multiple households they should consider using antigen tests a number of times a week. 

Activities classed as “higher risk activities” don’t just include attendance at bars, restaurants, nightclubs, but also going to the cinema, visiting multiple homes,  participating in indoor contact sports, as well as car sharing with people.

The recommendation was contained in a letter dated 11 November from CMO Dr Tony Holohan to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, but the Expert Advisory Group on Rapid Testing had actually discussed the proposal of regular antigen testing as far back as September. 

Despite the level of concern from government over the hospital figures and rising case numbers, and sense that further action needs to be taken to avert an even greater crisis, there is still no detail on when members of the public might be able to get their hands on antigen tests at subsidised prices. 

At the end of October, The Journal reported that the Irish Pharmacy Union and the HSE had entered preliminary talks about the distribution of antigen tests to the wider public.

Government sources at the time confirmed that it was unlikely that the antigen tests would be free, and that there would be a “nominal fee”.

While the talks then were described as being in the early phase, nearly two weeks later that it was revealed that the government was looking at the matter seriously, with a view to subsidising the cost of antigen tests to help people purchase them at a lower price. 

It all appeared to be full-steam ahead for that plan. 

That was until it emerged that the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan had urged the Government not to provide subsidised antigen tests, warning the move could lead to an increase, rather than a decrease, in Covid-19 cases.

As one senior government source put it, “it is no secret that Tony is far from a fan of antigen tests”.

This letter was viewed as one last-ditch effort to get his viewpoint across, and was dispatched by the CMO despite the government seeking no further advice on the matter.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly indicated last week that he planned to bring proposals to Cabinet on the rollout of subsidised antigen tests, as well as how much it all might cost, to this week’s Cabinet meeting. 

However, to the surprise of many, no such memo was brought. 

So, what’s the hold up?

That was the question posed to the Taoiseach during Leaders’ Questions yesterday, with Social Democrats co-leader Roisin Shortall stating that the lack of urgency was “truly shocking”.

While one antigen test can cost less than €10, a pack of five can cost up to €30.

Shortall said antigen tests are a “vital tool” but many can’t afford them, stating that there is a strong case for them to be free. 

She asked when the public can expect to hear about a decision being made and what the cost for each antigen test will be. 

The Taoiseach dodged the questions during Leaders’ Questions, giving no firm timeline.

“There is a scheme being developed but we have to get best value as well for the public purse.  It is important that we just do not dive into it,” he said.

On Tuesday, reporters at the weekly post-Cabinet briefing also questioned what was going on behind the scenes.

The government spokesperson said work was ongoing and they were in talks with all stakeholders such as the pharmacies, as well as retailers and supermarkets. 

But again, no deadline was given as to when a final sign off would be done. 

Asked again when the plan for subsidised tests would be given the green light, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday night that he hoped discussions would be wrapped up and details brought to Cabinet by the end of the week or at next week’s Cabinet meeting.

Speaking to his party members at the parliamentary party meeting last night he said the subsidised antigen testing system should be finalised by Tuesday.

Varadkar has indicated that the cost of an individual test it is likely to be between €2 and €4. 

Those in government circles have denied that the letter from Holohan warning government off a subsidised scheme was the reason for the delay, but insisted there were details that still need to be worked out. 

It is understood that since those representations were made by the CMO, considerations have been given to making sure that if someone is buying an antigen test, a staff member consults with the member of the public about why they are purchasing it, how they should using it, and also ensure that they aren’t taking the test if they are symptomatic. 

Holohan has said he is concerned about symptomatic people, who should be presenting for a PCR test, taking an antigen test. 

While such a consultation often happens when someone is buying certain over the counter medicines from a pharmacist, there are concerns that such an interaction would not happen if someone were buying a subsidised antigen test from a large supermarket. 

While it has been confirmed that that is one idea being put forward, those in senior positions are concerned such a proposal is too complicated and have questioned if such a consultation is needed. 

Contracts are still to be signed off, senior sources said. Discussions are also underway as to whether medical card holders should get the tests for free. 

So when can people expect to hear the details of the plan? 

While there are hopes that it may happen this week it’s more likely a decision will be signed off next Tuesday – which will be nearly three weeks after the public were told they should engage in regular antigen testing if going out and about. 

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