Business group accuses Nphet of being ‘flippant’ over criticism of antigen tests

Isme calls for Government to question reliability of advice it says is ‘so demonstrably wrong’

A representative for small businesses has accused public health officials of being “glib, flippant and scientifically ignorant” over their criticisms of rapid antigen tests to detect Covid-19.

The Department of Health should ascertain why some members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) have an animus against antigen testing "in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence," according to Isme, the Irish SME association.

The department should also consider how reliable Nphet advice is when it is "so demonstrably wrong" on the issue, according to chief executive Neil McDonnell in a letter to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland
12,143,670 10,222,511

The latest bout of disagreement over the usefulness of antigen testing erupted last week, when chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said Nphet was "genuinely concerned" about the use of kits in uncontrolled circumstances by retailers.

“Someone could go into the supermarket and buy a pound of sausages and charcoal for a barbecue, as well as a test. That represents a real risk,” according to Dr Holohan.

"These antigen tests will not keep you safe," another Nphet official, Prof Philip Nolan, said on Sunday.

In his letter, Mr McDonnell pointed out that the report of the Covid-19 rapid testing group last month concluded that rapid antigen testing should be considered in a wide range of settings.

“To date, however, Nphet has continued to reiterate only the [well-known] relative shortcomings of antigen testing, rather than the scientifically established advantages of widespread testing.”

Citing the advice of the international health bodies, Mr McDonnell said that if Nphet “is privy to scientific advice at variance with the guidance from these agencies, it should publish it immediately”.

Testing rollout

Isme requested that the Tánaiste prioritise the rollout of rapid antigen testing in the workplace last December, he pointed out: “How many of these lives could have been saved by a robust system of workplace antigen testing is unknown, but is likely to be non-trivial”.

Currently, many employers are adopting workplace antigen testing systems in order to protect their staff and customers, he said. “The efficacy of these individual testing efforts is likely to be compromised by the absence of State support or guidance on antigen testing.”

“Even with high levels of vaccine rollout in this country, the necessity for antigen testing in the workplace is likely to be inevitable into the medium term, especially when international travel fully reopens.

“We ask you and your Cabinet colleagues to consider, therefore, how much longer you can afford to indulge the cavalier press conference and social media musings of those members of Nphet, who have departed so radically and inexplicably from established scientific and public health guidance on antigen testing.

"Ireland no longer has the luxury of entertaining glib, flippant and scientifically ignorant ruminations of Nphet members."

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s News at One, Dr Holohan said he was not opposed to antigen tests or to retailers selling them but he was concerned about people’s interpretation of the result of a test. There was a risk that if someone got a negative result that might falsely reassure them.

“We can’t have people behaving as if they don’t have the disease when they do,” he said.

Dr Holohan said it was not a question of trust in the public it was the fact that the test did not give “a reliable enough” result.