Thursday, 18 February 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I support the greater use of antigen testing in Ireland. I am on the record as having said that on a number of occasions. However, that has to be subject to public health advice and the approval of NPHET and HIQA, which also advises on this.
It is now being used in outbreaks and has been tested in some clinical scenarios, such as outbreaks in hospitals. It has, therefore, been used in recent weeks under direction of NPHET and the HSE. The problem is that it misses a large number of positive cases, particularly asymptomatic cases. Therefore, whereas a PCR test might miss 15% or 20% of positives, an antigen test will miss many more positives, especially asymptomatic cases. That could give a false reassurance. People can believe they have tested negative for Covid-19 and can behave in a certain way that actually causes the virus to spread. That is one of the big concerns about using antigen testing more so than we do now. It can create a false reassurance that people have tested negative when they actually have not. There is a very high risk that positives get missed on antigen testing.
For what it is worth, the first I heard about meat plants was from the media. It may well be that the meat plant owners have taken it upon themselves to do this. People around the country are carrying out antigen tests and even PCR tests without approval or guidance from the public authorities. There are private labs, for example, from which a person can get self-tests and so on. People can order others from the Internet. I do not know for sure but it may well be the case, and I suspect it probably is, that the meat plants took it upon themselves to use antigen testing and that was not done with the approval or authority of any public body. I could be wrong on that but I suspect that is the case.
To clarify once again, NPHET has endorsed the recommendations on the use of antigen testing. As I mentioned previously, the HSE is now putting in place deployment options for the use in acute hospital settings and as part of a response to outbreaks in community settings. The use will be in symptomatic vulnerable populations and their close contacts, supported by appropriate clinical governance and operational arrangements.
The Minister for Health has set up a group that is chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Professor Mark Ferguson, to examine the use of rapid tests in the community. Therefore, things are moving, albeit at a slow pace, in regard to greater use of antigen testing. It will now be used in symptomatic vulnerable populations and their close contacts. The group, under Professor Ferguson, will see if it can be used more widely in a community setting.
The Deputy also mentioned Bank of Ireland. It is the case that the Government holds a 15% shareholding in Bank of Ireland. However, 85% of it is owned by other investors. The decision to close any branches is obviously one for the bank. It is not a decision for Government nor one that requires Government approval. While nobody likes to see a bank branch being closed, we all need to acknowledge that the world has moved on in terms of banking. The number of people who set foot in a bank branch now is a fraction of what it was ten or 20 years ago. We need to think about how we can use these iconic buildings, which are often in villages and main streets, for a new purpose that will involve footfall.