Concern grows as HSE therapists redeployed as Covid-19 testers

Therapists fear deployment may be long term, and affect primary care and disability services

The redeployment of senior HSE therapists to work as Covid-19 testers and contact tracers has prompted concern about growing waiting lists and cancelled clinics.

The staff include speech and language therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists who would have been working in primary care and disability services.

Some of those who are being deployed for a second time since the pandemic began, and who fear their deployment is now long term, have written to HSE management expressing concern. They have said their professions and disciplines are being devalued.

A number of therapists in the west have, in recent months, been assigned to the Covid-19 testing site based at Galway Airport and to a call centre based at NUI Galway where they carry out contact tracing.

In an email sent last Friday to management across the Galway, Mayo and Roscommon area, the HSE said it had been directed that serial testing in meat factories and food processing plants would commence this week.

“On foot of this, we require all staff who were previously involved in testing activity from your area to be freed up on a full-time basis to assist with this work,” the email stated. It said the clinical staff should report to the testing sites where they had previously worked.

The HSE acknowledged that this would place additional pressure on services, adding that it was “a national directive which we are obliged to adhere to”.

The Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists (IASLT) said among those likely to be severely impacted were recovering Covid-19 patients who had been ventilated, and whose voices and swallow had been affected as a result.

The association, in a pre-budget submission sent to the Minister for Finance, quoted research which found almost half of speech and language therapists surveyed had been redeployed during the pandemic.

It said redeployment resulted in cessation of service users’ access to essential services and could adversely affect children’s development.

“Disruptions are ongoing. Waiting times have increased,” the IASLT warned. “Delayed early intervention may result in children ultimately never receiving the SLT services they need at the time they need it.”

Marijke Morris, chairwoman of the IASLT, said the public did not realise that many speech and language therapists were carrying out Covid-19 testing rather than their normal roles.

“We are concerned about the implications for services if this continues,” she said. “Already there are long waiting lists and this will be exacerbated.”

One senior HSE therapist said it was “crazy” that clinical therapists were being used to swab tests and make contact tracing calls.

Suspended services

She said that in the meantime vulnerable families who had been told at the start of lockdown that service were being suspended temporarily, were still in limbo.

“These include kids with special needs including some with autism who are being deprived of these services,” she added.

The HSE said it was “acutely aware” of the impact of redeploying staff from areas such as audiology, speech and language therapy and dentistry to Covid-related work and there was a focus on ensuring staff revert to their original areas.

A balance has to be struck between ensuring continuity of services in specialist areas and the continuing delivery of Covid services, said HSE chief operating officer Anne O’Connor. However, the HSE had to maintain a core level of service delivery in the area of Covid-19 testing and contact tracing, she added.

A total of 156 HSE staff were redeployed to work in residential care, while 375 corporate staff were moved to Covid-related duties during the pandemic. The HSE plans to recruit hundreds of new staff in the coming weeks to test for the virus and carry out contact tracing.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times

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