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65 new contact tracers starting this week, but Taoiseach wants recruitment fast-tracked

Public service workers that were transferred to help with contact tracing will only return to their roles when the recruitment drive is complete.

Image: Sasko Lazarov

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said 400 people have been interviewed to become contact tracers, with 65 new staff to begin work this week. 

A recruitment drive is underway to hire 500 new staff for the permanent Covid-19 contact tracing operation.

However, the HSE has confirmed to TheJournal.ie that public service workers that were transferred to help with contact tracing at the beginning of the pandemic – many of them from the health service – will only return to their roles once the recruitment drive is complete.

Speaking in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said he spoke to Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan this morning on the issue of testing and tracing, saying:

“We are in agreement that anything we can do to fast-track the recruitment and the appointment of other staff will happen.”

There are currently approximately 280 contact tracers in eight contact tracing centres around the country.

The Taoiseach was responding to People Before Profit’s Mick Barry, who was highlighting an article in The Irish Examiner newspaper.

Dr Ann Dee, a consultant in Public Health Medicine, told the newspaper eight departments are now “throwing in the towel” and giving up on doing “proper” contact tracing.

“We can’t cope with the volume of work,” she said, adding “there are not enough of us to deal with what is coming at us”.

The Taoiseach said the first 500 community swabbers are through the interview process and are going into compliance checking. The first new staff start on 8 October, he said.

“With regard to contact tracing, the first 400 people are through the interview process. There were 65 new staff this week, on 6 October, and there are to be 70 next week, on 12 October.

“We expect to continue to bring in 60 to 70 new staff every week, which will help to free up resources in the wider health service and also get a specific, stronger workforce in place on the contact tracing and swabbing side,” he said. 

However, concerns have been raised in recent weeks that workers that were reassigned need to return to their normal roles as it is impacting other areas of the health service.

The Irish Dental Association said resourcing levels have become a full-blown crisis, with 25% to 40% of skilled staff having been assigned to testing and contact tracing, according to the IDA members’ survey.

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A statement to TheJournal.ie from the HSE confirmed that staff redeployed to contact tracing come from Human Resources, Community Health Organisations, Environmental Health Officers, and some management admin staff.

“There largest group are Environmental Health Officers, with up to 80 people involved in contact tracing at present. There are also approximately 25 Health and Social Care Professionals involved in contact tracing,” said a HSE spokesperson.

“As the new staff are recruited, trained and become fully operational, the other staff will return to their substantive positions,” they said.

The first new recruits will commence training this week, “and as soon as they are fully operational, staff redeployed from other parts of the HSE will return to their usual roles”, said the HSE.

“The public health service faces a challenge owing to Covid-19, of that there is no doubt. But the resources have been provided and will not be spared in ensuring that what must be done will be done. I have made that very clear, and so has the Minister for Health,” said the Taoiseach.

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