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Senior civil servant to warn Dáil committee that Covid-19 crisis could last for years

The Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response is due to hear from a number of health officials today.

LAST UPDATE | May 19th 2020, 8:50 AM

THE SECRETARY GENERAL at the Department of Health will tell an Oireachtas Committee this morning that Ireland’s response to the the Covid-19 crisis could last for years.

In his opening statement before the Dáil’s special committee on Covid-19, Jim Breslin will tell politicians that the social and economic costs of the crisis “will be with us for some time”.

His appearance comes as the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 reached 24,200 last night, with 1,547 people confirmed to have died.

Breslin is one of a number of officials due to address the committee today, with chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and HSE CEO Paul Reid also due to provide updates.

“We need to be aware that we will continue to be in the acute emergency phase of this crisis for some time, with further waves an ever-present danger,” his statement reads.

“This is not a one, two or even a three-day storm, after which we move to the recovery phase. The acute phase of this crisis will definitely be measured in months and most probably in years, rather than days.”

The senior civil servant will also say that although the scale of the challenge brought about by the crisis is unprecedented, so too has the response of health services.

He will point to the support given by the HSE to GPs and nursing homes, as well as its development of testing capacity.

“Four months ago there was no test for the virus, much less commercial supply of such tests and the infrastructure necessary to undertake testing at scale…

“The issues which have been encountered have been well documented, but despite these Ireland is positioned towards the top of the international testing league table.

“Ireland is fourth highest in the EU in terms of tests completed in population terms.”

However, Breslin will also acknowledge that conclusions on the response to the crisis so far are tentative and preliminary, particularly as Covid-19 is a new virus.

He will add that Ireland will need to balance its response to the pandemic while attempting to attend to other health and social needs in an infinitely more demanding environment.

“Our crisis response continues and will require an exceptional and sustained effort for some time,” he will conclude.

Testing capacity 

Meanwhile, HSE CEO Paul Reid will tell the committee that Ireland is now in a position to conduct over 100,000 Covid-19 tests per week across its end-to-end process of swabbing, laboratory and contact tracing.

Reid will today tell TDs that the organisation’s focus now is to “significantly improve the end-to-end turnaround times” to two days or less from swabbing to test result notification and three days from point of referral to a completion of contact tracing in 90% of cases.

It’s understood that the HSE is also in the final stages of the development of a mobile application that will support contact tracing for those diagnosed with Covid-19.

Testing capacity – after initially falling below the levels required – is now in a position where its capacity exceeds demand, the HSE CEO will say.

Reid will also inform TDs that the number of outbreaks within long term residential seetings is failing. Last week, there were 33 outbreaks in nursing homes and similar settings, compared with 42 the week before. 

Workplace settings

Yesterday saw the beginning of Phase One of the re-opening of the Irish economy, with outlets such as hardware stores, garden centres and construction sites permitted to re-open.

Dr Sharon McGuinness, CEO of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), will brief Oireachtas members on the Return to Work Safely Protocol it has developed alongside other agencies to support businesses which are re-opening.

She will say that the authority will be involved in ensuring compliance with this protocol in line with other occupational health and safety requirements. 

There are 109 inspectors currently in the authority, with 67 field inspectors assigned to inspect as part of the Return to Work Safely Protocol.

When a HSA inspector visits a workplace, there are a range of enforcement actions which can arise which include – in serious cases – applying to the High Court for an order to prohibit that place of work from operating. 

McGuinness will outline how its inspection programme has been refocused to oversee compliance with the requirements in place for businesses. 

Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, will tell the Oireachtas Committee that it is crucial that the HSA actively utilises its powers under the law.

She will tell TDs that lives would be risked otherwise, and that the HSA must be given all the resources it needs from government to carry out a large-scale workplace inspection campaign. 

The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response is due to begin in the Dáil at 11am today. 

With reporting from Christina Finn and Sean Murray

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