Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Micheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
First, I take the opportunity to thank the Irish people for responding to the current situation. All of the research is indicating, in particular in the past week or two following our announcement, that people are adjusting their behaviour significantly, which is ultimately the way to reduce the current pressure on hospitals and in regard to Covid-19. I watched what the WHO had to say in terms of the overarching issues. Every week, there is a magic bullet somewhere that people keep raising, but fundamentally we are dealing with a very transmissible Delta variant. We have reopened society and the economy to levels that we have not witnessed since the beginning of the pandemic. There is a winter seasonality issue as we move indoors all across Europe. The WHO is predicting well over 500,000 deaths across Europe. We want to protect life and limb. There is a range of other issues that Dr. Butler of the WHO has indicated. He said the booster campaign should focus on the immunocompromised, the elderly and those working in healthcare. We are making very good progress now on all of those key target groups – the over-80s, residents in long-term care facilities, the immunocompromised and the over-70s. There has been a dramatic administration of boosters to approximately 630,000 people.
Antigen testing is an important supplementary tool, which I believe in. It has been rolled out much more significantly in the past six months than in any previous period of the pandemic. As Deputy Shortall is aware, every close contact is given free antigen tests. They are sent out to people. Approximately 3,000 antigen tests are given out to close contacts per day. In the agriculture sector alone, 101,000 rapid antigen tests have been done. In higher education, close to 25,000 antigen tests have been used in a pilot project. The HSE has also run pilot projects in the early learning and care sector. There has been a much broader use of antigen testing generally and free antigen testing will start in schools on Monday for classroom pods where cases are identified. The expert group recognised that there should be a subsidised model. There has been advice from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, who has advised caution on how that is rolled out.
The Deputy raised the Irish Pharmacy Union. It has an interest in the matter from a number of perspectives. We want to work with as broad a range of stakeholders as possible to get a distribution of antigen tests for routine testing and to reduce the costs for people. That must be in parallel with constant, consistent communication on the proper use of antigen testing.