Covid-19: Government to promote use of antigen tests as an ‘extra safety measure’

Varadkar says guidelines will be issued, highlighting risk of ‘false reassurance’

May 7th, 2021: Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan has warned against the use of supermarket-bought antigen tests, saying they could provide "inappropriate reassurance" and lead to the spread of Covid-19. Video: RTÉ


The Government supports the wider use of antigen tests as the country reopens from the Covid-19 lockdown but the public needs to be aware of their limitations, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

The Government would shortly be issuing new guidelines to businesses to encourage wider use of antigen testing as “an additional health and safety measure”, he said, and pilot programmes would also be set up in schools and colleges.

However, he said such tests could give “a sense of false reassurance” and they were no substitute for respecting the public health advice.

While he said he would like to see greater use of such tests, he advocated a policy of “belt and braces and keep the trousers on”.

When asked if the Government would pay for widespread antigen testing, Mr Varadkar said that “by and large” businesses should pay for the tests themselves and put it down as a business expense.

He was speaking in the wake of concerns expressed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan about the sale and marketing of antigen tests by the Lidl supermarket chain.

Lidl ceo in Ireland JP Scally told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland that many stores around the country were sold out of the tests over the weekend, with 10,000 kits sold on Friday, their first day of sale.

He said staff at Lidl were using the kits themselves once a week, and were “delighted” at this extra level of security. “The uptake from staff has been very positive.”

One member of staff who tested positive using the antigen test, removed himself from the workplace and then went to his GP who referred him for a PCR test and he was found to have Covid-19.

When asked about comments by Dr Holohan about people buying groceries and the antigen test kit and thinking they had done their bit, Mr Scally told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland “we have to trust the public”.

Mr Varadkar commended Lidl for offering all its staff a test once a week but he expressed concern about the way the company had marketed the test, particularly in an advertisement last Friday where it was bundled with charcoal and sausages in a sale package. “That is the wrong message.”

Mr Varadkar said if the test was positive it meant you should go to your GP for a Covid test but if it was negative “it really means nothing” as it did not mean you were free to let your guard down.

The controversial ad was tweeted by Lidl after Dr Holohan said National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) was “genuinely concerned” about the use of such kits in uncontrolled circumstances.

“Someone could go into the supermarket and buy a pound of sausages and charcoal for a BBQ, as well as a test. That represents a real risk,” Dr Holohan said last Friday.

Lidl later tweeted: “Weekend Super Savers! Pick up a pound of sausages, charcoal for the BBQ and antigen tests for €31” accompanied by images of the products.

Lidl’s tweet prompted a response from Nphet official Prof Philip Nolan: “Can I get some snake oil with that? It makes for a great salad dressing with a pinch of salt and something acerbic. Stay safe when socialising outdoors over the next few weeks. Small numbers, distance, masks. These antigen tests will not keep you safe.”

Divided opinion

The Chinese-made Xiamen Boson Biotech Co, Rapid SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Test card sold by Lidl was one of 16 antigen tests approved in February for use in the EU. It claims to have 93.8 per cent sensitivity (true positives) and 100 per cent specificity (true negatives).

Antigen testing has divided the scientific world, with Nphet and many other national bodies sceptical about the contribution it can make to controlling the spread of infection, particularly when infection rates are low and among people not showing symptoms.

Other experts, in Ireland and other countries, have advocated a greater role for mass, repeated antigen testing to quickly identify cases.

In Ireland, where official use of antigen testing is limited, positive results are confirmed using the standards PCR test.

With antigen tests purchased in retail, consumers swabs their own nostrils while PCR testing is carried out by a health professional.

Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers also backed the greater use of antigen tests on Monday, saying they were recognised across Europe as having an important role in reopening society.

He said a report carried out by Professor Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland, and chief scientific advisor to the Government, highlighted the role antigen testing could play in the return of spectator sports and live entertainment.

However, he stressed a negative test did not give people “a free pass” on respecting public health advice.

Monday sees a major relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions after five months of strict lockdown with the return of non-essential retail by appointment, hairdressers and barbers, an easing of the rules around outdoor meetings and the resumption of religious worship in churches.

Inter-county travel is also permitted from today. There will be increased capacity on public transport and galleries, museums and libraries will be free to reopen.

Mr Varadkar said today was a day of freedom thanks to the efforts of the Irish people, the HSE and businesses. He said around 12,000 businesses would reopen and 100,000 people would return to work this week.

Pandemic financial supports would continue until the end of June at least, but would need to be phased out over time as they were being funded by borrowed money that “would not last forever.”

A “fast-track” restructuring system would be introduced, he said, as the current examinership process was too difficult and lengthy. Some businesses would survive if they could restructure.

It would not be long before vaccination appointments opened for people in their 40s, he said, it made sense that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be offered to people if no other vaccines were available.

As for any surplus vaccines, there were other parts of the world which needed them, and Ireland should donate them, he said.