Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Tests

8:45 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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Last year, the Minister for Health established an expert group to report on the use of rapid Covid-19 tests and to make recommendations on how such tests could be used in different settings. In fairness to the Minister, he put together talented people to form the group to advise him on these matters. The group was chaired by Professor Mark Ferguson, the Government's chief scientific adviser, and comprised two professors of infectious diseases, Professor Mary Horgan and Professor Paddy Mallon, Kingston Mills, professor of immunology at Trinity College Dublin, Dr. Lorraine Doherty, national clinical director with the HSE, and Dr. Darina O'Flanagan, an adviser to NPHET. The Minister put together what could only be described as a super league of immunologists and medical personnel to give advice to the Government on this topic.

The report was released earlier this month. It recommends that rapid Covid-19 testing, such as antigen testing, should be used to complement PCR testing. It did not suggest that we get rid of PCR testing, but it pointed out that antigen testing and other forms of rapid Covid-19 testing should be used in certain settings. For example, it recommends it should be used in certain medical spheres, such as in care homes to enable people to get back to visiting those care homes. It also recommends that it should be used in certain workplaces, particularly workplaces that are high risk such as meat factories. It recommends that rapid testing be used in universities. One thing every Deputy must agree with is that we must get third level students back on campus as soon as possible. However, the report further recommends that rapid Covid-19 testing be used in sport. It said it should be used to get people back participating in sport, but what is relevant to this matter is that it recommends that it be used for the purpose of getting spectators back at matches and at outdoor events. If this happens and applies, it will not just be for the benefit of outdoor sports because we will also be able to use it in an indoor context. In particular, it would be beneficial to accelerate the return of cultural and artistic events, which have been decimated as a result of the pandemic.

The report, which contains several recommendations, has been released. It recommends that the Government start seeking to apply them immediately. The reason I refer to it is that one of the organisations referred to in the report, the IRFU, has decided to expedite it through the Leinster branch making a proposal to the Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, will be aware that the Leinster branch has submitted a proposal to the Government that on 15 May next, when a rugby match is due to take place between Leinster and Ulster in the Royal Dublin Society, RDS, that 2,000 antigen-tested spectators be permitted into the ground. It has set out a mechanism by which it will do this. It involves people arriving a number of hours before the match is due to kick off. They will be antigen tested and then leave. Later in the day, they will get a message on their telephone and they will return and be admitted if they record a negative Covid-19 test. The benefit of this is not just for the purpose of trying to see a match in Dublin in the near future. It will be of great benefit to the GAA, soccer and other outdoor sporting events, as well as cultural events. The Government must engage with the Leinster branch on this issue to ensure we get this up and running as a trial spectator event.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the Deputy raising this matter. Under the Government's living with Covid plan, spectators are permitted to attend sporting events in limited numbers when the relevant area of the country is at level 1 or level 2 of the measures in place to keep us safe. As the country is currently at level 5, no spectators are currently permitted at sports matches or events, but certain professional and high-performance sports are allowed to take place behind closed doors. The Government's plan for living with Covid states that for very large purpose-built event facilities, for example, stadia, specific guidance will be developed with the relevant sectors to take account of size and different conditions for events such as large national and international sporting events. This would apply in respect of sporting events taking place if we were at level 1 or level 2 in the plan. Notwithstanding the current level 5 restrictions, the finalisation and application of this guidance remain absolute priorities for me.

A working group was established to investigate how a safe return of some spectators could be facilitated. It comprised representatives of the FAI, the GAA and the IRFU, as well as stadium operators and event managers, officials from my Department and Sport Ireland. The group reviewed international guidance, considered lessons from spectator events hosted elsewhere in Europe and consulted independent health and safety experts. The collaborative approach of the group saw contributions from all parties. I have reviewed all the work of the expert group on the return to sport. Officials from my Department are consulting with the relevant public bodies on the report and its draft guidelines are receiving their support. I reiterate our thanks to the working group that brought it to this point.

With regard to the Ferguson group, the Minister for Health published its report on 1 April last, as the Deputy mentioned. I understand the main tenet of the work on the report was to examine how rapid testing can complement other public health measures, and that rapid antigen tests are primarily aimed at identifying asymptomatic cases. According to the report, antigen tests can become part of a suite of measures, such as social distancing and the use of face masks, which mitigate the risk of spreading Covid-19. The report can be considered to broadly propose three phases of development: use antigen testing regimes already in place to verify their usefulness; move antigen testing into new areas; consider the use of antigen tests to assist with the return of spectators to events. For example, recommendation B 1.9(e) reiterates the premise that rapid testing should begin first with participants in sports and then with spectators. The report will be among the materials that will help inform us for the return of spectators to sports grounds when it is safe to do so.

It is worth noting the UK experience, where there will be a trial event next weekend with antigen testing. Approximately 8,000 people will attend a football cup final and the use of rapid antigen tests will be trialled as part of that. That test follows experience gained earlier this year in managing attendance at matches. This latest test event will also be supervised under an academic study package. In addition, all attendees will take a more reliable PCR test before attending the game to assess the accuracy of antigen tests. Attendees will also take a PCR test after attendance at the game to monitor any effects. Officials in my Department are in regular contact with our counterparts in the UK to learn from its experience.

My Department, with other health authorities, will continue to monitor closely the progress of trials of rapid antigen testing for Covid-19 at scale. In the meantime, we will continue to be guided by health officials on how best to allow safe attendance at sporting and cultural events. I am optimistic that test events can be undertaken over the summer. We all are ambitious, as is the Deputy, for the return to sport generally and also to ensure that spectators can return over the summer. We have to give people that hope. The caveat to all that is the overriding epidemiologic situation.

With a ramped-up vaccination programme, we can be positive about the return of spectators during the summer.

8:55 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his answer. I am fully aware of his commitment to getting people back playing and watching sport. Obviously, the Minister of State is correct in saying we are at level 5 at present and limited in what we can do. We need to recognise that hope is out there, however. We cannot continue to live with this sense of doom and dread, listening to numbers every evening. Hope is out there in the form of the vaccination. Societally and epidemiologically, we will have changed to a much better place by the time May comes, and more so by June and July. We need to recognise that we need to plan ahead for this.

As the Minister of State said, the Ferguson report referred to fact that we need to use antigen testing for the purpose of getting people back participating in sport but also back watching sport. I agree with that. Obviously, the priority should be to get people playing sport, no matter what type of sport it is, particularly younger people who have been deprived of sport now for nearly four months. I agree with the Minister of State in that respect.

The Minister of State said we need to be guided by public health and that is correct also. We need a vision for the future, however. The Minister of State will regret this just much as I do but it looks like we have lost the UEFA matches from Ireland. I am disappointed about that because it is intended that those matches will take place in June. We need to try to make sure we have a pathway in place to ensure that spectators can get back to sporting events in May, June and July. Those are great months for the GAA in this country as well. We want to see people being able to go the championship and to attend their hurling and football matches, and indeed, other outdoor events. My fear is that unless we give an indication to the sporting bodies that we are behind the proposals in the Ferguson report and that we believe antigen testing is the way to go, we simply will not get there.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy O'Callaghan. As he mentioned, we are at level 5 and we need to see ramped-up vaccination levels and continued suppression of the virus. As I said, the Ferguson report offers the prospect of building on the work the expert group has done with the FAI, IRFU and GAA on a plan regarding the return of spectators. I believe we will see that this summer and we will be able to start to pilot and to test events. We would all like to see spectators back at one of the all-Ireland matches or even at League of Ireland games this summer. I am positive and optimistic about that. It is about timing, however. We have had planning on this since autumn of last year with the draft return of spectators and test events underpinned by that. The Ferguson report complements our capacity to do that. As Deputy O'Callaghan mentioned, antigen testing will play a key role, not only around sport but also third level education and other key areas of society that we want to see reopen and stay open.

The Deputy mentioned that we have been in a difficult position with the Euro 2020 matches. We have not been able to give the assurance of 25% spectators in the Aviva Stadium for those games. That will obviously have an impact on UEFA's decision. It is very difficult to be able give certainty at this point and tell people that we can have 11,000 or 12,000 spectators present in June when we have such an overarching degree of restrictions.

I share the Deputy's view, however. We need to get sport prioritised and reopened and we are doing so. Next Monday, we will see our kids back playing in pods of 15 again. Hopefully, we can extend that to a greater extent in May and then, through the summer, as I said, see not only the return of all-Ireland and League of Ireland games but also the broader return of competition in sport, which many young people and adults have missed out on for many months. I am ambitious about that and we all want to see it return and continue. Physical and mental health is important and outdoor activity is being prioritised by Government.

The Dáil adjourned at at 9.25 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 April 2021.