Coronavirus: New rules aim to free up half of PCR testing capacity

Infectious Diseases Society says changes will confuse and public may not comply

The Health Service Executive is hoping significant changes to an overwhelmed Covid-19 testing system will free up about 50 per cent capacity for PCR tests for older people under new rules coming into effect from next week.

The Department of Health announced changes on Thursday night that will lead to those aged between four and 39 who show symptoms of the disease being asked to self-isolate while undertaking regular antigen tests at home and only seek a PCR test if an antigen test returns a positive result.

The changes come into effect from Monday and are due to “very large volumes of disease now being experienced and to ensure best use of available testing capacity”, the department said.

Hospital Report

New isolation rules are also being introduced so that those who contract Covid-19 and who have received a vaccine booster at least seven days previously – or those who are double-vaccinated and had the disease – only have to isolate for seven days instead of 10.


One health service source estimated the testing changes could free up to half the PCR testing capacity – about 150,000 tests a week – allowing more older people at greater risk from the virus to secure PCR test appointments at a time when there is little or no availability of tests.

‘Little gain’

The Infectious Diseases Society of Ireland criticised the changes, saying that insisting on PCR tests to confirm infections "duplicates effort for little gain at a significant cost to the public purse".

The group warned that a negative antigen test in a symptomatic person does not exclude Covid-19 infection and that these cases should be prioritised for PCR testing.

“Our concern is this will lead to confusion and place undue burden on symptomatic individuals who may opt not to comply with guidance rather than isolating and seeking/performing a test,” the society said in a tweet.

The changes come as the Department of Health reported another record number of daily Covid-19 cases at 20,554. It was the fourth day this week that a record number of cases were reported as a fifth wave of Covid-19 infection caused by the fast-spreading Omicron variant sweeps across the country.

Hospital burden

The number in hospital with Covid-19 rose to 619 on Thursday, up from 378 in just five days. Some 148 people with Covid-19 were either admitted to hospital or received a positive test result while in hospital in the most recent 24-hour period.

The State's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, warned that "hospitalisations at this level are not sustainable and are having a significant impact on our health service".

Ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations, Dr Holohan urged people to keep their social contacts "as low as possible in the days ahead". He also wrote to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to express concern at the high rate of infections.

Mr Donnelly expressed “significant concern” about the likely impact of high Covid-19 case counts on the health services.

Meanwhile, the Government has begun issuing exemptions for symptom-free key workers from Covid-19 isolation requirements under contingency plans to ensure public services remain in operation amid concerns around the impact of high levels of infection.

Secretaries general of Government departments have been given the discretion to allow such exemptions.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times