Jump in coronavirus tests expected as criteria set to be relaxed

System for testing was overwhelmed in March

A medical staff member collecting a sample at a  school  in China. Photograph: AFP/Getty

A medical staff member collecting a sample at a school in China. Photograph: AFP/Getty


Senior health officials will today consider changes to the Covid-19 testing system that would see the most significant numbers being put forward for testing since the system was overwhelmed in March.

Since late March, those with symptoms of the disease have also had to belong to one of several priority groups, such as healthcare workers, close contacts of a confirmed case, pregnant women or those suffering from some chronic conditions, in order to qualify for testing.

Speaking on Thursday night, Dr Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, confirmed that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) would today consider whether to remove membership of a priority group as grounds for testing.

“We will make a decision on that (on Friday) as to whether we need to stick with the existing prioritisation criteria or in effect remove those from the case definition.” He agreed this would result in significantly more people becoming eligible for testing.

“It will have an increase effect and we want to make sure it’s not going to have an effect that’s beyond our capacity to test, and we don’t think it will,” he said.

Prior to changes made at the end of March, just one symptom was necessary to become eligible for a test. This led to around 20,000 referrals per day from the GP network, which in turn resulted in equipment shortages causing the closure of testing centres and significant backlogs. This left many waiting two weeks or more for their results, and caused significant distress for many.

Earlier this week, the testing criteria were slightly relaxed, with one symptom plus membership of a priority group making someone eligible for testing. GPs who spoke to The Irish Times this week said this had not resulted in a significant increase in testing referrals.

According to data from GPBuddy.ie, an online network of family doctors, many of those being clinically diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in the community were not eligible for testing. At the end of March, doctors responding to the website were on average clinically diagnosing two cases per day, only one of which met the criteria to go forward for testing.

That has gradually narrowed. On April 23rd, an average of 0.7 cases per day were being diagnosed across the GPBuddy network, of which 0.4 were being sent forward for testing.