Dáil debates

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Covid-19 Pandemic

3:05 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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As the Minister of State knows, Drogheda is Ireland's largest town and the population of the borough itself is almost 50,000. The very immediate hinterland of the town brings the population of the area to in excess of 80,000. The Government and the HSE would not dream of leaving Waterford city or Galway city without a Covid-19 testing centre but Drogheda is left without one. It seems that nobody is accountable. As the Minister of State knows, I am from Drogheda. I live there. I love my town. I care deeply about it. I am not making a narrow, local, parochial case for Drogheda to have a permanent Covid-19 testing centre or a community vaccination centre. I am making a rational logical case based on the evidence before us and based on our experience.

The Drogheda local electoral areas and the Laytown-Bettystown local electoral area which adjoins Drogheda consistently feature at the top of the charts of the areas most adversely affected by Covid-19 but we still have no vaccination centre. There is no logic to this. This is a real problem in the area. When rates were running at 40 cases per 1,000, and now we are much higher, we had to beg the HSE nationally to provide us with a temporary testing centre in the locality just for a weekend. It made an impact. It works. The evidence is clear. The centre in Louth is in Ardee in mid-Louth. The people there do a very good job. Nobody is debating this or arguing about it. However, 21% of all households in Drogheda town alone have no car. They have no access to private transport. People with symptoms do not want to have to get on a bus or public transport to go for a test because they do not want to run the risk of infecting others. This is a laudable position to take.

Neither does Drogheda have a community vaccination centre. In May, the 50 to 60 age group in Louth were among the last in the State to be vaccinated. I had to make a series of interventions with the HSE to enable them to have the Johnson & Johnson jab administered in the Helix. This cannot be allowed to happen again. The 50 to 60 cohort in Louth and east Meath cannot be left behind. As the Minister of State knows, those over 50 are at risk. Tomorrow, the walk-in centre in Dundalk will be open but not for the 50 to 60 age group. This simply is not on. We know all about the waning efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. People can wait no longer. Those vulnerable people cannot be exposed because of the inadequate roll-out of the booster vaccine and the lack of facilities in my locality. It is not safe. It is not on. It is not acceptable. We need a vaccination centre in Drogheda, Ireland's largest town.

Those aged over 50 in Louth and east Meath were badly let down by the HSE nationally in April and May. If we are to tackle this disease properly and if we are to make people safer, testing and vaccination centres need to be provided where people live and where they are. We know the countries that perform best are those that have good testing and contact tracing systems, and have systems in place to respond to the needs in urbanised areas. We simply do not have this, as is evidenced by the fact we do not have a Covid-19 permanent testing centre in Drogheda and neither do we have a community vaccination centre in the locality. I request that the Minister of State address this with the HSE on an urgent basis.

3:15 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Nash for raising this issue to discuss the need for a permanent Covid-19 testing centre in Drogheda. Testing and contact tracing continues to be a key component of the Government’s response to the pandemic and is fundamental to identifying the source and containing the spread of the virus. Demand for testing at this time is very high with approximately 216,000 tests conducted in the last seven days. This demand on the testing and tracing system is due to the high level of infection currently being experienced in the community. The HSE has significantly increased community PCR test capacity to 25,000 tests per day and with the current high demand of people using the self-referral online portal, when booking a test one may find that there are no appointments available.

Appointments become available at different times during the day, so people should try again later. If anyone with symptoms has concerns about booking a test, he or she should contact their GP. The HSE is prioritising those who are clinically referred to it and symptomatic close contacts. The HSE is routinely assessing locations where community testing centres are located. The HSE, in particular, has the goal of ensuring that well in excess of 90% of the population have access to a centre within a 45-minute drive from their residence. I should add that any individual who has a medical condition that prevents him or her from getting a test centre can be referred by a GP for a home test.

On an ongoing basis, in response to regional demand, the HSE evaluates options to augment capacity through the use of pop-up centres. I am informed by the HSE that there are currently two test centres open in Louth, located in Ardee and a pop-up centre currently in Dundalk. The permanent site located in Ardee was selected following a detailed evaluation as it best met defined criteria, including suitability and sustainability of the location as a long-term testing centre. In addition, travel times from both Dundalk and Drogheda, as the Deputy is aware, are about 25 minutes.

It is important to reiterate the public health advice that anybody waiting for a test who has symptoms of Covid-19 should continue to isolate until they are 48-hours symptom-free. This should minimise any impact for a person who may have to wait a number of days for a test.

The HSE is currently taking every necessary action to respond to the significant current demands, which includes working with private providers to add new capacity, extending the opening hours of swabbing centres, ongoing recruitment and redeployment of swabbing teams, and doubling the number of National Ambulance Service mobile teams. It is currently continuing to monitor the need for testing centres and the most appropriate locations where they open at any given time. This includes ongoing consideration of the need to open pop-up centres or the relocation of permanent centres or both in response to demand.

The Deputy has asked about Drogheda and, as he has said, it is Ireland’s biggest town with a population of 50,000, which is one of great significance. This is not my area but I certainly feel that the Deputy has a point which he has argued very validly. There was a pop-up centre in operation in Drogheda on 27 and 28 November and 2 and 5 December. There will also be such centres in Dundalk on 6 and Friday 10 December. I agree that for a town that size, the suggestion makes sense and I will bring back the Deputy’s concerns to the HSE. If he wishes, perhaps he might send me in an email and I will pass it on for the attention of the HSE.

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his considered response which is greatly appreciated. I know that he will raise it at senior level with the HSE. I believe regional officials in the HSE in the north east understand the requirement for such a centre in the area. I repeat again that I am not making a narrow, local, parochial case for my own home town. It is an observable fact that Drogheda is the largest town in the country and that it has consistently featured at or near the top of the charts of areas most adversely affected since the pandemic hit our shores in early 2019. The evidence is there. We know from experience elsewhere that the countries which best deal with the challenge that faces through Covid-19 are those that ensure contact tracing and testing centres are available where people live. Accessibility is key. I have dealt with countless cases over the past number of months of people who do not have transport and who are embarrassed that the very busy National Ambulance Service is mobilised to go to a home to test somebody because he or she cannot make it to the testing centre in Ardee. It also causes great disruption to people’s lives. I can share many cases with the Minister of State of people in very vulnerable situations who could not go for a test as recently as last week because they did not have transport or access to a test in their own locality.

That needs to be reviewed urgently and I repeat again the requirement for a community vaccination centre in the area. The 50 to 60-year-old cohort in the area were, I am afraid to say, left behind last April and May. That cannot happen again and if we are to be successful with the our national vaccine booster programme, we also need not just testing centres in areas where people live and where the population is most concentrated, but we also need community vaccination centres.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy and I agree with him that testing and tracing continues to be fundamental to our response to the pandemic. It is critical that we continue to monitor demand for testing to ensure that we can identify and contain the spread of the virus. The HSE are continuously monitoring the demand for testing and attendance rate at both regional and local level in order to ensure that Covid-19 testing is available on a regional basis. As I explained earlier, the HSE has the goal of ensuring that well in excess of 90% of the population has access to a centre within a 45-minute drive from their residence. As the Deputy is aware, the test centre located in Ardee fulfils that requirement.

The current very high demand means that testing is now operating at surge capacity and every effort is being made to ensure that resources are targeted to where they are most efficiently deployed to mitigate the impact of the virus across the entire population. I wish to reassure the House that the national testing policy, including the location of testing centres, is kept under continual review and the HSE continually evaluates the requirement of both pop-up and permanent testing centre response to the emerging demand. I am no expert in this area but there is a case to be made, in my opinion, for Drogheda as the largest town with a population of 50,000 to have a testing centre within walking distance of those 50,000 people. I will bring that opinion to the HSE.