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'An absolute scandal': Ireland has the highest Covid infection rate for healthcare workers in the world, committee told

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this evening suggested that the figures provided by the INMO were wrong.

INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha says one healthcare worker was sent home for wearing a face mask.
INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha says one healthcare worker was sent home for wearing a face mask.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

Updated Jun 23rd 2020, 10:10 PM

THE COVID-19 INFECTION rate of Irish healthcare workers is the highest in the world, INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha told the Special Covid-19 committee today.

The INMO said that up to the end of 8 May, 8,018 cases of infection of healthcare workers were reported, with healthcare workers making up a third of all positive Covid-19 positive cases in Ireland.

Nurses (2,591) and healthcare assistants (2,056) accounted for more than half of the 8,018 Covid-19 infections confirmed among healthcare workers, followed by other allied healthcare workers, (1,878), doctors (483), and porters (90), Ní Sheaghdha outlines in her opening statement to the committee.

The committee heard today that 88% of healthcare workers got the virus in a healthcare setting. Seven healthcare workers have died from the virus. 

“At the moment Ireland is top of the league, with the highest infection rate of healthcare workers globally. That is an absolute scandal,” said Ní Sheaghdha.

The latest figures show that 4,823 healthcare workers remain out sick.

Following a meeting with the Minister for Health Simon Harris these figures were issued to the INMO.

The committee was also told the when creches reopen frontline workers such as workers should get preferential treatment when getting a place. The INMO boss was also critical of the lack of testing and tracing of healthcare workers in hospitals.

Speaking about the infection rate, Ní Sheaghdha said the INMO had a conference call with the International Council of Nurses in relation to the pandemic, stating that Ireland’s infection rate for healthcare workers was the highest in the world.

“It is not something we are proud of,” she said. 

When asked by Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly how that can be explained, Ní Sheaghdha said it was due to the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

She described meetings with the HSE where the INMO had to “lobby and cajole” the decision-makers into making it mandatory for face masks to be worn by all healthcare workers on duty.

One nurse was sent home for wearing a face mask during their shift, Ní Sheaghdha said, stating that the worker was told that it was not HSE policy.

The matter became an industrial issue which has since been resolved, the committee was told.

When the HSE face mask policy for healthcare workers was rolled out on 22 April, the infection rate of workers dropped dramatically, she said.

When this was put to the HSE, they said the drop could be accounted for as the virus numbers in the community were also falling, she said, stating that the INMO disagrees with this assertion.

Ní Sheaghdha said the wearing of face masks should have been mandatory for all healthcare workers on duty “from the very beginning”.

She added that the testing and tracing of frontline workers “was not and is not effective”.

Robust testing and tracing of healthcare workers in private settings is taking place, but she criticised that testing and tracing is currently not being carried out on all acute hospital workers. 

The INMO general secretary said the Irish Prison Service is an example the health service should follow, stating that a “very tight regime of testing and tracing” of prison officers ensured there was no cases.

On the issue of childcare, the committee was told that two-thirds of nurses are using annual leave to care for their children.

The committee members were told that when creches reopen, frontline workers should get preferential treatment.

Ní Sheaghdha said preferential treatment should be given to nurses and midwives in order for them to continue working in the health service.

Childcare facilities will start to re-open under Phase Three of the government’s roadmap for exiting lockdown, expected to begin next Monday. 

However, due to the guidelines there are concerns about a number of facilities not being able to reopen, and those that do, the numbers of children attending might be restricted.

Ní Sheaghdha said many healthcare workers or their partners had to take annual leave. Others had to move relatives into their home in order for their children to be cared for while they went to work.

“Some moved their children to the homes of relatives and didn’t see their children for eight weeks,” she said, stating that the sacrifice made by healthcare workers cannot be matched by anyone else in the civil service.

Other countries in the EU and also the UK put systems in place to ensure that nurses could get to work during the public health crisis.

The committee was also told that there is still no plan should a second wave hit, with TDs being told today that “we are going to end up in the same position again”.

Earlier this evening, Donnelly said that there needs to be a detailed investigation into the rate of infection among healthcare workers. 

“There is a commitment from party leaders to conduct a review of how Ireland dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic and I believe the claims we heard today, that Ireland has the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in heathcare workers, must be given one of the highest priorities in this review,” he said in a statement. 

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Donnelly, whose party could seen end up in government alongside Fine Gael and the Green Party, said that a “detailed investigation is needed to firstly find out how this was able to happen and secondly to ensure that if another surge occurs, all healthcare workers, are protected”. 

‘Not accurate’

However, this evening Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cast doubt on the figures provided by the INMO. In an interview with RTÉ One’s Prime Time programme, he said that the figures provided by Ní Sheaghdha were “not accurate”.

“I think she suggested that 60% of her coworkers are still sick with Covid-19. That’s not the case, the HPSC [Health Protection Surveillance Centre] says 90% have recovered,” Varadkar said. 

Also citing HPSC data, Varadkar said that Ireland had 8,000 positive cases out of a healthcare workforce of 250,000. “That’s between 3% and 4% positivity rate,” Varadkar said. 

“They’re saying that that was wrong,” he said. “Leaving statistics aside for a second, what is indisputable is that there are 8,000 health care workers that did contract Covid, and the vast majority of whom did so at work. So we need to make sure that they’re properly protected,” he said. 

With reporting from Dominic McGrath

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