Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan urged the Government not to provide subsidised antigen tests after the Cabinet had decided to proceed with the plan, warning the move could lead to an increase, rather than a decrease, in Covid-19 cases.
However, the Government will ignore his warnings and move ahead with the plan next week, it is expected.
Dr Holohan wrote to the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, on Wednesday warning the Government would be wrong to go ahead with plans to subsidise the tests. He suggested the tests could be used incorrectly by people and result in more instead of fewer cases.
Dr Holohan’s letter, which has been widely circulated among senior Ministers and officials, was sent after a decision at Monday night’s Cabinet sub-committee meeting – at which he was present – to make the provision of subsidised antigen tests a key element of the State’s response to the fourth wave of Covid.
Dr Holohan has long been a critic of antigen tests, warning repeatedly of the danger they could be misused and give people false security. In his letter, he cited research he said showed the danger of people using the tests incorrectly, and said this risked promoting infection rather than reducing case numbers.
The Government is expected to approve the plan to provide subsidised antigen tests at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting. There is also a plan to provide free antigen tests for use in schools from Monday, November 29th.
Sources indicated the aim is for Mr Donnelly to bring a memo on a subsidised antigen-testing regime to Cabinet next week. Among the options examined was to bring the cost of buying a test down to about €3 but, given that tests retail at different costs, the intention now is to apply a universal subsidy which will then be discounted from the cost of different tests by retailers, it is understood, with some detail still to be worked out.
Sources said the scheme’s full-year cost would be several hundred million euro, although the actual exchequer cost would be less as the intention is to run it for a period of months only. Negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform continue.
Meanwhile, there is early optimism among officials that changes to public health advice and curbs introduced this week are being taken on board by the public.
Models of the disease are being run again to take account of an increase in public caution and a reduction in contacts, it is understood, with preliminary results indicating a reduction would have a meaningful effect on the path of the disease, favouring an outcome on the optimistic end of the projections – or even slightly better.
But with significant uncertainty, official and political sources indicated there is still a chance of additional public health measures being recommended if the situation worsens markedly.
A further 3,138 cases of Covid were confirmed on Friday, with 643 patients in hospital with the disease and 118 of them in ICU. In the North, there were 1,690 positive cases and seven deaths.
Meanwhile, the Health Service Executive has given 453,000 booster doses, and a further 64,000 “third primary” doses among the immunocompromised. It expects to have completed between 170,000 and 220,000 this week, rising to between 205,000 and 240,000 next week. The following week it will be between 240,000 and 270,000, which will be around the maximum rate of vaccination during the booster programme.