Covid-19 contact tracing staff being cut to ‘much reduced’ level

Contact tracing contractors offered limited number of jobs in other call-based roles

The HSE said there were 574 staff working in contact tracing at the end of April. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The HSE is significantly scaling back its Covid-19 contact tracing operations with staff working through a subcontractor being advised to apply for a limited number of roles in another area.

Recruitment agency CPL told contact tracers this week that the number of staff required for contract tracing in future would be "much reduced", and encouraged workers to apply for new roles in a new project that matched "the skills mix acquired by contact tracers".

The HSE said there were 574 staff working in contact tracing at the end of April - down from a peak of more than 800 during the worst wave of the pandemic in January - as the incidence of the disease has declined in recent months.

The reduction has come from staff moving within the HSE or leaving the health service and through "leveraging technology", the HSE said. The remaining staff work seven days a week in four contact tracing centres in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin.


A HSE spokeswoman said it was working with the Department of Health on a future plan for its test and trace operations, but was not able to say how many contact tracers would ultimately be retained.

“Once that is finalised, we will engage with stakeholders,” she said.

This week CPL told contracted staff, whose employment is ending on June 30th, that there were a number of “team lead” or “grade five” jobs available and “initially 57 grade three roles” with a project based at the Heuston South Quarter offices near the HSE’s headquarters in Dublin.

Most contact tracers are in “grade three” roles. Staff must apply and undertake interviews for the roles, which will run until October 28th.

One contact tracer working outside Dublin expressed anger that contact tracing staff, who had worked through the most difficult periods of the pandemic, were being offered new roles working for the HSE so long as they were willing to move to Dublin to take up the role.

“We have had the privilege of speaking to nearly every family in the country, trying to protect the country and the health service during a massive uncharted emergency, and it feels like we are being thrown on the employment scrapheap with no appreciation or assistance,” said the tracer.

CPL told staff in an emailed circular that the HSE was developing a transition plan to move from the “high-volume test and tracing system to a surveillance-based system, while maintaining a level of resilience to manage possible future surges”.

It said the HSE was finalising the plan to retain “a proportion of our current staff” who can contact trace in line with public health guidance, “while balancing the sustained current reduction in Covid-19 case numbers and the subsequent decrease in the volume of contact tracing”.

“In practical terms, this means that we are planning to retain a proportion of our employees on new contracts who will undertake similar call-based/clerical work on behalf of the HSE but will be available to resume their role in contact tracing if that is necessary,” said the CPL circular.

The new roles involve calling members of the public, dealing with confidential and sensitive information and the recording of information on a customer relationship management system.

The seven-day moving average of new Covid-19 daily cases, confirmed by official PCR tests, rose to 1,870 on Friday, up from 750 a week ago, but it is significantly down from a high of 22,480 in January as incidence of the disease has fallen dramatically in recent months.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times