Covid-19: Testing could cost State €450m by year end, says HSE

Oireachtas committee told current system needs overhaul to be fit for purpose

People walk past reopened shops and businesses on O’Connell Street, Dublin, on Monday as  lockdown measures are eased. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

People walk past reopened shops and businesses on O’Connell Street, Dublin, on Monday as lockdown measures are eased. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

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A Covid-19 testing system producing 15,000 results every day could cost the State €450 million by the end of the year, the Health Service Executive (HSE) has said.

In correspondence sent to the special Oireachtas committee on the Covid-19 response, which sits again on Tuesday, the HSE said that running 15,000 tests “per day every day” would entail projected costs “in the region of €450 million”.

Currently, the HSE has capacity to test about that number on a given day, but demand for testing is significantly lower, with recent data showing fewer than 5,000 community and hospital lab tests being carried out per day.

A HSE spokeswoman confirmed the sum would be for producing 15,000 tests a day every day until the end of 2020.

According to the document, the HSE believes that level of testing will “clearly will not be a requirement”, but warns that the current testing system needs a significant overhaul to be fit for purpose in the medium term.

A spokeswoman said that current “temporary solutions are not sustainable for the longer term”.

The HSE has previously announced that it will complete a strategic plan for testing and tracing by the autumn. The briefing document emphasises that the current testing and tracing model “is not sustainable in the long term”, due to its reliance on staff and equipment which have been temporarily reassigned from elsewhere, as well as the use of community centres and sports grounds such as Croke Park as sampling centres, and reliance on short-term laboratory provider contracts. It says a longer-term testing and tracing strategy will include its own financial plan.

Testing equipment

So far, the HSE has spent almost €80 million on testing and tracing, the document shows, including €33 million procuring testing equipment. Some €23 million has been spent on laboratory testing, and €14.5 million has been paid to general practitioners. The document shows that €371,000 has so far been spent on the HSE’s delayed Covid-19 tracing app. The costs of private labs are not yet included as contracts and payments schedules are being finalised.

It also emerged that the State’s health watchdog warned the Department of Health in early April that 124 public and private nursing homes – a fifth of the country’s care homes - were “at risk” and could need additional support from the HSE to address outbreaks of Covid-19.

Documents released to the Oireachtas committee show the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) told the department on April 9th “the lack of a direct relationship” between the HSE and private nursing homes would make it difficult to project the homes’ specific needs.

Risk assessment

Hiqa’s chief inspector Mary Dunnion told the department in a risk assessment that in a large number of private homes the “skills mix and competencies” of staff fell short of what was required to deal with the “escalating care needs of residents during a Covid-19 outbreak”.

Meanwhile, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) confirmed another four deaths of people with Covid-19 in the State, the lowest daily number to be confirmed since March 11th. This brought the total number of deaths associated with the disease to 1,683. Another nine cases of Covid-19 were diagnosed, bringing the total to 25,207.

While the number of Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations has fallen, the average number of close contacts reported by those infected with the disease jumped to more than five.

Speaking at the NPHET briefing, the State’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has said Irish people “can do better” when it comes to the wearing of face masks in public as part of an effort to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

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