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Anger mounts as government learns of contact tracing collapse impacting thousands through the media

The HSE is to ask more than 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 test result last week to alert their own close contacts.

Image: Leah Farrell

ANGER IS MOUNTING in government circles today that ministers and senior officials first heard about the contact tracing issue through the media. 

Due to the near-collapse of the contact tracing system, it has also been revealed that a new feature will be announced shortly that will allow a close contact of a confirmed case to arrange their own Covid-19 test online.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil this afternoon that the HSE or Department of Health did not inform him of the problem and that he found out when someone sent him a news article about it. 

The HSE is to ask more than 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 test result last week to alert their own close contacts that they will need a test due to “unprecedented pressure” on Ireland’s contact tracing system over the past week. 

The HSE said it will send a text message today to between 2,000 and 2,500 people who have been informed by text of their infection, asking them to inform their own close contacts that they should restrict their movements and contact their GP “immediately” to arrange a test. 

Contact tracers normally contact close contacts of infected cases to arrange for them to be tested. 

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, the Taoiseach acknowledged this, stating that “without question, the contact tracing dimension of this has come under extreme pressure in recent days and particularly over the weekend”.

During Leaders’ Questions today, the leaders of Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats all raised contact tracing concerns with the Taoiseach.  

In response to queries from Alan Kelly about when he was informed about the issue, Martin said that he was only told about it when he received a text message with last night’s Irish Times article. 

“I got a text last evening which included the Irish Times article, that’s when I first knew. So I wasn’t informed of this operational measure that the HSE undertook,” he said. 

Kelly said it was “extraordinary” that the Taoiseach had found out this way and he wanted to know when the Health Minister was informed. 

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy says she was “absolutely shocked” that the Taoiseach had found out by text. 

“This is not a minor deal, you should have been been aware of this, you should have been aware of just how under pressure the system was,” Murphy said.

“You should have been briefed continuously by the Minister for Health, who should have been completely on top of just exactly where and when we were in terms of this process.”

It has been confirmed that Donnelly was not made aware of the situation prior to Cabinet, which met yesterday afternoon and did not discuss the issue, but bigger questions remain as to why he was not informed by the HSE or his department.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Health said: “The decision to ask a limited number of people to alert their own close contacts of their positive result over the past weekend was an operational decision taken by the HSE.”

The spokesperson added that this was to be a “temporary measure”. 

“The Minister for Health learned of this operational decision taken by the HSE on Tuesday night. The HSE has reconfigured the call structure to deal with 1,500 positive cases per day this week. The HSE continues to explore ways of improving the testing system. It will shortly introduce a significant new feature which will allow for a close contact to arrange their own Covid-19 test online.”

However, a number of political sources have expressed concern about what would have happened if the story had not been broken by the Irish Times last night, and what plan would have been put in place to tell people who were unaware that they were in contact with someone with Covid-19. 

Ministers have serious concerns about the handling of the situation, with one stating they are not sure what happened, but it “isn’t good”.

A number of senior people in government do not think the HSE sending out a text message to people will be adequate, with concerns over putting the responsibility on the person with Covid to get in touch with their contacts. It has been noted that some of the people may be in hospital and may be unable to send text messages to close contacts. 

Due to the delay in contacting people, five days have now passed where people could have had a positive test, but those people who have been exposed to the virus haven’t been told.

It is understood that the 2,000 people that will be contacted today could have between 6,000 and 8,000 close contacts in total. 

Given these numbers, and the fact that the average close contacts per person are around three people, there are fears among some in government that up to 24,000 to 30,000 people could be impacted in total. 

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Handling

While it is acknowledged that things can go wrong in a pandemic, how it is handled is key.

Questions are now being asked about why swift action was not taken over the weekend when the contact tracing system began to creak under pressure. 

Concerns are also being raised as to why members of the Defence Forces were not brought in at the weekend to aid with the calls, as has been done in the past.

There have been suggestions that a helpline should be set up also as soon as possible to deal with the fallout and concerns of people.

Opposition TDs are also seeking statements from government or the health minister to be made on the matter.

The questions that the government has to get a handle on are: How many people went to school or work over the weekend or yesterday who were close contacts of confirmed cases and didn’t know? When will they all be informed, and how will the HSE ensure everyone is told?

It is understood that answers to these questions will be sought by ministers as a matter of urgency due to concerns it could lead to more outbreaks.

Level 5 restrictions take effect from midnight tonight, meaning that social contacts should be reduced from then on, potentially easing the pressure on contact tracing. 

It is understood the decision to send a text message to those people affected was a decision made the HSE, but only communicated to the government after the Irish Times article last night.

While testing capacity is at 120,000 per week, and satisfactory turnaround times, there is bewilderment felt by some that tracing capacity was not ramped up over the summer to deal with the expected rise those presenting for tests.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy 

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