Rapid antigen testing can be used as ‘another valuable tool’ – Donnelly

Method may allow hospitality and live events to resume safely this year, Tánaiste says

Members of the  expert group said that antigen tests  should be used in addition to  PCR tests used by the HSE. Photograph: iStock

Members of the expert group said that antigen tests should be used in addition to PCR tests used by the HSE. Photograph: iStock

 

Rapid antigen Covid-19 tests combined with vaccination certificates could offer a way for hospitality businesses and live events to resume safely later this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

His remarks come after the publication of a report that recommends the widespread use of rapid testing in several sectors of society including business and education.

While members of the Covid-19 rapid testing expert group were split on the outcome of their work, a majority recommended that the use of antigen tests should be prioritised in healthcare settings such as nursing homes to facilitate visits by relatives, and among students and staff in universities.

It says pilot programmes should be “immediately” established in schools and if they have positive outcomes, “widespread rapid testing could be deployed in all schools by September 2021”.

Members of the expert group said that antigen tests – which offer rapid results and can detect when a person is infectious – should be used in addition to the more sensitive PCR tests used by the Health Service Executive (HSE).

The report calls on the Department of Enterprise and individual employers to set up programmes, including feasibility pilots, of rapid testing in selected workplaces. It says priority should be given to individuals with significant face-to-face interaction with the public such as retail staff.

Encouraging

Mr Varadkar said his department will take an active role in encouraging the take-up of antigen testing among businesses.

He told the Irish Times: “Some companies have already piloted it including Kerry, Lidl, Combilift and some construction sector companies as well as meat plants.

“We’ll be encouraging more to do so provided they use one of the EU commission approved tests.”

Mr Varadkar said that any positive test results will be followed up by a PCR test provided by the HSE. He also said the cost of the antigen test can be offset as a business expense and is not taxed as a benefit-in-kind for the worker.

Mr Varadkar said: “In the coming weeks, I’d like to see antigen testing used regularly in factories, on construction sites and in other busy workplaces.”

He said: “While it may be months away, I do think that antigen testing combined with vaccination certification could open the way to resuming hospitality, the arts and live events safely... Let’s see how it goes.”

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he believes rapid testing can be used “as another valuable tool in Ireland’s battle against Covid-19”.

He said the expert group report “strongly endorses rapid testing” but he also conceded that some “highly-respected experts” are concerned about aspects of rapid testing.

Mr Donnelly pointed to concerns about lower accuracy levels than PCR tests and the potential implications particularly of false negatives. However, he said: “My view, having looked at the evidence, is that rapid testing has an important role to play and, as such, I am moving forward with its implementation.”

Exams

The report said that rapid testing could be deployed before State exams such as the Leaving Cert, however, the prospect of that happening this year were downplayed.

One member of the expert group, Prof Mary Horgan, a consultant physician in infectious diseases, said there wouldn’t be a lot of time to conduct pilot programmes in schools before this summer’s exams.

Mr Donnelly said that it’s a matter for the Minister for Education Norma Foley and education partners to work out when pilot antigen testing schemes could start in schools ahead of any wider rollout in September.

Prof Mark Ferguson, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said there had been criticism at the start of antigen testing in schools in the United Kingdom that there hadn’t been enough engagement with teachers and parents.

He said there’s a “good programme” there now after consultation took place. He said “you need to get the buy-in”, adding that the experience has been that people find it “very positive because you’re taking control of your own health”.

Mr Ferguson said the experience in the UK, and from the use of antigen tests in the health service here, is that about one in 1,000 tests gives a false positive result.

Prof Horgan said antigen tests are an additional tool to go alongside PCR testing but their use “gives each of us ownership on controlling the infection”.