HSE takes issue with coronavirus testing expansion plans

Worries expressed about capacity and lack of consultation over 100,000 weekly tests

HSE chairman Ciarán Devane wrote to Minister for Health Simon Harris, above, in recent days, it is understood. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland/PA Wire

HSE chairman Ciarán Devane wrote to Minister for Health Simon Harris, above, in recent days, it is understood. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland/PA Wire

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The HSE has expressed concern over the recent announcement that testing for Covid-19 is to be significantly expanded to cover 100,000 suspected cases a week.

HSE chairman Ciarán Devane wrote to Minister for Health Simon Harris in recent days, it is understood, while HSE chief executive Paul Reid wrote to the department’s secretary general, Jim Breslin.

On Friday last week the National Public Health Emergency Team, which is chaired by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, decided the level of testing for Covid-19 should be increased to assess 100,000 people a week, operating on a seven-day-a-week basis, for a minimum of six months.

Within the HSE there is understood to have been worries about capacity and concern at the process that led to the announcement of the move, as well as what was seen as a lack of consultation.

Both the HSE and the Department of Health declined to answer specific questions about the letters on Friday.

Government sources said the Minister had received two letters from Mr Devane in April and that neither mentioned the commitment to increase testing for Covid-19.

However, other highly placed sources said the concerns were about the process that led to the announcement of the 100,000 tests per week on Friday of last week.

Labour leader Alan Kelly, who raised issues around accountability in the emergency team in the Dáil on Thursday, called for the letters to be released.

“I asked the Taoiseach in the Dáil if there was any correspondence from the HSE to the Government regarding governance issues. Now we know that there are, and I am calling on the Taoiseach to publish these letters and address all the issues that arise as a result of them,” Mr Kelly said.

Over 1,000 deaths

Separately, the Department of Health has been notified of a further 37 deaths of people diagnosed with Covid-19. The number of people who have died with confirmed or probable coronavirus in the State has exceeded 1,000.

The number of additional confirmed cases of the virus is 577, bringing the total number of cases in the State to 18,184. Adjusted testing criteria, to be introduced early next week, will lead to increased referrals for testing from GPs. Dr Holohan said: “We think we should be able to do that within the existing capacity that the HSE has in place now, both in terms of the capacity to take the sample, and to test it in the laboratory.”

Health officials also confirmed that five healthcare workers had died from the disease as of last Saturday evening. Some 3,830 healthcare workers had tested positive, 159 of whom had been hospitalised, and 24 were placed in intensive care.

Dr Holohan reiterated concerns about complacency creeping in, and said that were the decision to be taken at the moment, “we would be sticking with the restrictions that are in place as they are”.

However, Government officials are considering extending the 2km travel limit on households to 5km or possibly 10km as part of a potential future easing of restrictions. The State may also change its advice to over-70s who are “cocooning” at home so they can go outside for walks and possibly shop in supermarkets during restricted hours. They may be asked to wear masks outside their homes.

Further relaxations being discussed include allowing older people to interact more with other family members.

Outdoor, non-contact sports such as golf and tennis, which involve natural physical distancing, could also be permitted when restrictions start to lift.

The partial reopening of primary schools with limits on class sizes and secondary schools only to Leaving Cert students ahead of exams starting on July 29th could also be permitted. No decisions have yet been finalised.

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