Coronavirus: Target of 15,000 tests per day never hit by Irish labs

New figures show Irish laboratories processed a daily peak of 11,504 tests in late April

Public health experts have warned a robust testing system to quickly identify and then isolate confirmed cases of Covid-19 is essential to preventing a second wave of the virus.

Irish laboratories never hit the health service’s target of 15,000 coronavirus tests per day, even during the height of the pandemic, new figures show.

The early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak were dominated by failures in the testing system, which led to a large backlog and delays of up to two weeks for results.

Public health experts have warned a robust testing system to quickly identify and then isolate confirmed cases of Covid-19 is essential to preventing a second wave of the virus.

The most coronavirus tests processed by Irish laboratories in one day was 11,504 on April 29th, followed by 10,374 the day before.


The figures do not include tests processed by German laboratories contracted to assist the Health Service Executive (HSE), which were instrumental in clearing the large early backlog of tests.

From the March 13th onwards Irish laboratories were processing more than 1,000 tests a day, only dropping below this level in late June.

The HSE did not reach a stated target of 100,000 tests per week by the third week of May, with Irish laboratories only processing 28,625 tests that week. As the incidence of Covid-19 in the community began to fall during the national lockdown, the demand for testing also declined.

A HSE spokeswoman said there is capacity to deliver 100,000 tests a week, although demand did not reach that level.

“It was hoped that the public health measures would prevent the requirement to ever undertake 100,000 tests in a week. Thankfully this has been borne out,” she said.

“The demand for our available capacity has been lower in recent weeks. However, we must keep in mind that as the country is opening up, we may see a demand for increased capacity once again,” she said.

The figures on the daily number of tests processed were obtained by Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall in response to a parliamentary question.

Ms Shortall said despite ramping up testing capacity to meet demand, “very little testing has been done so far for potential asymptomatic carriers.”

“There is an opportunity now to scale this up, especially among those working in high-risk settings. That should be taken full advantage of to get firmly ahead of the spread of this virus and prevent a second wave,” she said.

The figures show from February 7th to June 26th more than 414,500 tests were conducted by Irish laboratories with the majority (308,993) were processed in Dublin.

There is capacity in more than 40 laboratories to conduct coronavirus tests, including the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory, acute hospitals, Enfer, and a Department of Agriculture facility.

Nearly 26,000 tests were conducted in the last seven days up to Friday, with turnaround times within three days from referral to contact tracing in 90 per cent of cases. The average length of time between a swab being taken and a laboratory result is currently 1.2 days.

Delays processing tests for residents and staff was one factor behind the spread of the virus in the nursing home sector, which has seen more than half of the country’s Covid-19 fatalities.

Following an initial surge in demand for tests the criteria for referral was restricted, while global shortages of testing reagent also contributed to strain on the system.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times