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Sasko Lazarov/
contact tracing

Donnelly says HSE contact tracing backlog issue 'won't happen again' as Reid says 'I regret that it happened'

HSE CEO Paul Reid said it was a “risk-based decision we had to make”.

LAST UPDATE | 22 Oct 2020

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has said he’s been assured by the HSE that the issues that have emerged which have seen people who test positive for Covid-19 having to identify and get in touch with their own close contacts “won’t happen again”.

“For a short period, demand did outstrip supply,” he said this morning. “I’d prefer it didn’t happen… I am assured it won’t happen again by the HSE.”

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, the minister for health said that the number of people employed in contact tracing is set to double over the next four weeks to 800, and that the HSE now has capacity to contact trace 1,500 Covid-positive cases a day.

It emerged on Tuesday night that the HSE would be asking more than 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 test result on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to alert their own close contacts that they will need a test due to “unprecedented pressure” on Ireland’s contact tracing system.

The HSE said it would send a text message to 2,000-2,500 people yesterday, asking them to inform their own close contacts that they should restrict their movements and contact their GP “immediately” to arrange a test.

Donnelly described the decision to ask patients to contact trace their own contacts as a “one-off” to his Fianna Fáil colleagues at last night’s parliamentary party meeting.

There was growing anger in government circles yesterday that ministers, senior officials and the Taoiseach first heard about the contact tracing issue through the media. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne, HSE CEO Paul Reid said it was a “risk-based decision we had to make”. 

Reid said: “One thing I always take cognisance of, I said at the very start of this pandemic to Oireachtas members to Cabinet committees we will get 70% of decisions right and sometimes 30% of them won’t be right but the most important thing we do is that we make decisions.

And Mike Ryan of the WHO is always very clear on that. If you wait for perfection you won’t stay on top of things so in terms of the weekend I want to acknowledge the 70% factor of the decision was right, we had to make that operational decision that we had to make on Tuesday. The 30% factor that we caused a lot of angst for politicians, for the Minister, for the Taoiseach in the last couple of days was that they weren’t notified until Tuesday evening and I acknowledge that and I take full responsibility for that.

Reid added that it was an “unfortunate situation” and while he “regrets that it happened”, there are “big calls we are going to have to make as we move through this process”. 

Earlier, Donnelly said that it was an operational decision taken by the HSE given the high numbers of new cases. 

“People have been saying incorrectly that the contact tracing system has fallen down,” he said. “It absolutely has not.”

The minister said he had “no problem” apologising to the people affected but defended the testing regime in this country. 

“The HSE is working night and day and has established one of the highest testing rates anywhere in the world,” he said.

In the same interview, Donnelly was asked about the rising rates of Covid-19 in Cavan, in particular. The county now has an incidence rate of over 1,000 per 100,000 – the highest in the country. 

The minister said it was partly due to the county’s location next to Northern Ireland which has a high spread of the virus.

However, while not naming any sports organisations, he said that there were “post-match celebrations which shouldn’t have happened [that] did help spread the virus”. 

He said the Level 5 lockdown in effect from today would hopefully flatten the curve again and allow the country to return to Level 3 of restrictions in December. 

Speaking about the controversy today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the people at the frontline are working under severe pressure.

“Whilst I was annoyed with what happened, and was also annoyed with not having been told directly, I do have to acknowledge that people are working under great stress and strain.”

He said resources have been provided for test and trace, stating that the government has told the HSE that whatever it takes, the resources are there.

Martin wants the recruitment to happen quicker, adding that contact tracing gets more difficult as cases rise.

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