Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
34. To ask the Minister for Health the current capacity of the Covid-19 test, trace and isolate system; the number of contact tracers currently in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37673/21]
I thank the Deputy for her question. In line with the evolving public health policy advice, the HSE has put in place a comprehensive, reliable and responsive testing and tracing operation. Testing and contact tracing continues to be an important element of our response. Our current swabbing capacity is 175,000 tests per week. Demand for testing and tracing is high, as the Deputy will be aware, but every test centre around the country currently accepts walk-ins, which is being very well-received in communities around the country. Alternatively, a test can be booked on the new online booking portal for any nearby test centre, so it is very accessible right now. Contact tracing centres operate 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and are fully-rostered every day. The dedicated workforce, now totalling 930 contact tracers, has been really important to ensuring adequate capacity for contact tracing up to 1,600 detected cases per day. This involves full data gathering and phone calls to all cases and their contacts. The service can now deploy digital mechanisms to significantly increase capacity and continue to contact trace through surge periods if the daily rate goes above 1,600 cases a day.
The testing and tracing programme undergoes continual evaluation and development in response to changing demands and evolving evidence. The HSE has been provided with resources to maintain a robust testing and tracing system to meet ongoing demand. It ensures that its potential to detect and mitigate the impact of the virus across the population is maximised.
I thank the Minister. On 8 May 2020 I requested from the Tánaiste a road map for testing and tracing. He was acting Taoiseach at that time and said he would indeed ask the HSE to produce a road map and on 14 May we saw the road map. He said:
Our mission is to get people back to work, get businesses open again and get the economy humming so that we have the resources we need to build a better society... [W]e will maintain an intense focus on the virus and follow four guiding principles: isolate, test, trace and treat, so that we can quickly react if things go wrong and if [we see] an increase in cases... The crucial thing is to keep doing the right things, to stick to the strategy and maintain our focus...
At that time we had 234 contact tracers. I am glad to hear we now have 930 but I want to know whether they are full-time, that is, working continuously for the 12 hours and what number of people do they trace individually.
We have 930 staff in place. I do not know who is working or the exact hours involved but I can confirm the part in which we are interested, namely, whether contact tracing capacity is operating to its full potential 12 hours per day, seven days per week. The answer to that question is "Yes". We do quite in-depth contact tracing compared with many other countries. We do contact tracing with various protocols, with a full list of phone calls and following up on the close contacts. It is a level that many other countries do not do but we have found it very useful in identifying local outbreaks before public health teams go in. The Deputy will be aware, for example, of the serious recent outbreak in Dungarvan, which is not far from her constituency. The outbreak was identified and contact tracing was done before public health teams went in and engaged with people. I am thankful that in Ireland we have had a fantastic response from the public, members of which isolate in order to protect themselves and everybody else. As a result, outbreaks like it are being contained all the time.
The issue is capacity when the numbers start to grow. We have had an average of approximately 600 cases per day over the past week. When we had 234 contact tracers, we were seeing 1,200 cases per day. I appreciate that officials were able to handle what happened in Dungarvan with the test, trace and isolate system. I am asking about what happens in future, when we get above 1,200 cases per day, as that was the level at which it collapsed last year. What will be our capacity to deal with this when we come under pressure if we have current levels of tracing? What happens if each person has five close contacts, which, I imagine, is a minimum number? It would mean that we would have to contact 3,000 people on a daily basis. This is why I am interested. I want to know that this is a robust system, that it will not collapse and that we will not have to go back into lockdown because we did not resource our testing, tracing and isolation capability.
The daily capacity has been significantly increased to 1,600 detected cases per day. The Deputy has raised a very important question, which is, what will happen after 1,600 cases per day are detected? Based on what we are seeing in Scotland and the modelling we have from Professor Philip Nolan's team, we will very likely be looking at more than 1,600 cases per day. There are various protocols to be put in place around using electronic means and shortening phone calls in order to further increase capacity. Probably the most important part of the answer comes from the Chief Medical Officer. He made the point when this happened last winter - he made it again in the discussions we are having with the HSE about what we do when the level is reached - that there comes a level of virus in the community after which contact tracing becomes far less relevant. Contact tracing is really important in dealing with isolated outbreaks in order to find and protect people by isolating them. As the Chief Medical Officer stated, we can get to a point where contact tracing is not the focus as there is a switch to more population-based tools.