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A test centre in Athlone, Westmeath
A test centre in Athlone, Westmeath
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Over €480 million spent on Covid-19 tests provided free of charge since start of pandemic

The HSE has purchased two million “I got my Covid-19 vaccine” badges at a cost of €320,000.
Sep 17th 2021, 12:05 AM 13,997 30

THE HSE HAS spent over €480 million on Covid-19 tests and testing centres throughout the pandemic.

Additionally, the health service has purchased two million “I got my Covid-19 vaccine” badges at a cost of €320,000.

Since March 2020, the State has provided free PCR tests to individuals to identify cases of the virus.

By the end of that month, more than 30,000 tests had been carried out as health officials tried to curb the initial spread of Covid-19.

But as the incidence of the virus continued to grow, so did the level of testing, with more than seven million tests completed around the country to date.

Figures released to The Journal under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 show that in 2020, operating Covid-19 testing centres cost the State €19 million.

This year, that expense has risen to nearly €28 million up to the middle of August.

Meanwhile, the cost of the testing process in laboratories was €246 million last year and €189 million in the first eight months of 2021.

That means the recorded cost of operating test centres is already higher in 2021 than it was last year, but the cost in laboratories has not seen a similar increase.  

To account for the rise in test centre costs, a spokesperson for the HSE told The Journal: “In 2020, there were significant numbers of staff redeployed to swabbing from other roles and were not costed to a Covid cost centre, so they do not appear in the 2020 costs. Dedicated swabbers were then recruited and staff returned to their substantive posts.”

“There were also significant developments with pop-up test centres, walk-in testing and an online booking system to improve access to testing for those who need it,” the HSE said.

In total, €217 million has been spent on providing free PCR tests this year up to August, on top of €264 million in 2020.

When the PCR testing programme began, there were long lists of people waiting around four to five days for a test and another seven days – or even ten – to receive their result.

However, testing capacity and turnaround times increased dramatically coming into the summer months as the HSE and Department of Health allocated resources to the programme and community test centres were set up around the country. The system has since been widely praised for being fast and efficient. 

The operation of the testing programme has not always run smoothly.

When the HSE was hit by the cyberattack in May, the systems for GP and close contact referrals to testing were temporarily taken down and patients or contacts who needed tests were instead advised to attend walk-in centres, which were intended to only handle asymptomatic people who opted to be tested.

Last week, the HSE ceased walk-in testing nationwide with little notice after demand increased by 35% over two days.

Walk-in testing remains unavailable, with those who need to get tested required to book an appointment online.

The HSE told The Journal it had seen very “significant demand for Covid-19 PCR testing across all its testing sites” over several days.

“Our priority is to ensure that the necessary volume of testing is available to those who most require it; therefore we would ask those who are fully vaccinated and are asymptomatic not to attend for PCR testing unless otherwise directed by your doctor or Public Health,” it said.

Earlier this week, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said that Monday was the “highest daily volume” of Covid-19 testing since the start of the pandemic.

Over 23,000 tests were carried out in community centres, with an estimated 30,000-plus tests in total including those done in hospitals and serial (regularly scheduled) testing.

“An extremely high rate and we have to monitor capacity over the coming days,” Reid said.

Vaccinations

For its vaccine programme, the HSE has spent €320,000 to purchase two million “I got my Covid-19 vaccine” badges.

The badges are available at vaccination centres to people who recieve a vaccine against the virus.

Ahead of the vaccine centres opening earlier this year, 500,000 of the blue badges were printed.

The HSE said the initial run of the badges was “well received” by those who attended for a vaccine.
1.5 million more badges were subsequently ordered in English and Irish.

Each individual badge costs 16 cent.

Vaccine-badge The HSE 'I got my Covid-19 vaccine' badge Source: PA Images

A further €8,804 was spent on photo backdrops at vaccination centres to encourage people to share images online that can help to encourage others attend for a jab.

In Northern Ireland, health officials similarly set up areas in vaccine centres where people could take photos in a bid to encourage young people to be vaccinated while uptake in 18 to 29s lagged behind older age groups, along with other measures like pop-up clinics.

At the time, less than 60% of 18 to 29s were at least partially vaccinated. Now, that figure has risen to 72.8% but is still the lowest uptake of any age group other than 16 and 17-year-olds.

The HSE’s expenditure on vaccine badges and photo backdrops was allocated under its communications budget for the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine programme.

In a statement, the HSE said it is “very pleased with the increase in people sharing pictures of their badges after vaccination or at the vaccination centre photo station on social media”.

“We know from our planning and from listening to people’s views that seeing other people share their experiences of having their vaccine, encouraging social proof, is a very important part of the Covid-19 vaccine communications strategy,” the HSE said.

A large number of posts can be seen on social media where people shared photos of their vaccine badge. 

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Many users also chose to feature their vaccination record, information leaflet, or a selfie instead. 

As of Wednesday, nearly 7.1 million vaccines against Covid-19 have been administered in Ireland, including 3.7 million first doses and 3.3 million second doses.

Overall, spending on healthcare in Ireland increased by €2.6 billion last year due to the pandemic.

Data from the Central Statistics Office show that the government spent €26.4 billion on healthcare in 2020, including €2.4 billion related to Covid-19.

Statistician Elaine O’Sullivan said that “as expected, Covid-19 had a dramatic impact on healthcare expenditure in 2020, resulting in an 11% increase in spending, or €2.6 billion”.

Much of the Covid-19 expenditure was on personal protective equipment, swab kits and ventilators, as well as spending on treatment costs and testing costs.

The government spent nearly €1 billion on PPE, swab kits and ventilators last year - €918 million.

Covid-19 related treatment costs amounted to €373 million, while miscellaneous health care expenses related to the virus cost €1,343 million.

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Lauren Boland

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