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Nearly 800 contract tracers now on the books, but concerns raised about redeployment of specialist health workers

There are thousands of children waiting for services such as speech and language therapy, the Dáil heard.

A number of TDs have continuously raised concerns about speech and language therapists being moved to contact tracing.
A number of TDs have continuously raised concerns about speech and language therapists being moved to contact tracing.
Image: Shutterstock/Bacho

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has said there are nearly 800 contact tracers working in centres around the country, but the Dáil has heard there are growing concerns about the redeployment of health staff to work as tracers.

People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith said there are tens of thousands of parents anxiously waiting for services such as speech and language therapy for their children.

The HSE told Smith that as of 18 September, 16 speech and language therapists and eight occupational therapists had been redeployed to tracking and tracing.

Smith said the parents of Shay, an eight-year-old boy from Walkinstown, who has Down Syndrome had been in touch with her to say that he has no speech and language or occupational therapist, no physiotherapy, and no psychology services.  

Sinn Féin’s Pauline Tully said she had also been contacted by the parents of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who has been on the waiting list for an assessment for autism for 12 months.

“They have been told he will have to wait a further six to eight months for this. This child is practically non-verbal. He needs speech and language therapy immediately but he cannot access it until he is assessed. The parents have been told some staff are still redeployed to contact tracing, which is adding to the delay,” she said. 

The Taoiseach said it is the government’s objective that there should be a separate dedicated workforce for swabbing and for contact tracing.

“That is what the HSE has been undertaking. That means, then, redeployment back to the front line and to the key services such as physiotherapy, occupational and speech and language therapy and other services,” he said.

He said health workers “are best deployed” to deal with the cases mentioned in the Dáil by the TDs.

“That is what we are going to do. Very significant progress had been made on that. In my view we should not have therapists doing the contact tracing work. There may be some incidents where one could be in a managerial role.”

However, the Taoiseach said there are people “who will build up experience over the first and second phase and we do not want to throw all of the experience out immediately.”

“Some people may know how to operate and manage the system and will, I imagine and surmise, be required but our objective is to have therapists back providing therapy services.”

Donnelly said yesterday that contact tracing is a big focus for the government. The numbers working in the system have been ramped up “very significantly”, he said. 

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He told the Dáil there were 231 tracers in mid-September, and that this had increased to 700.

“We are on our way to 800 in total. These figures do not include the contact tracers who were already working in public health departments, who are responsible for more complex contact tracing.”

The minister said he had recently announced a doubling of the public health workforce in the country. As of right now, over 200 interviews are ongoing and a further 200 interviews are scheduled, said Donnelly.

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