Holohan expresses concerns about antigen testing to Donnelly

Divide grows between public health figures and Ministers on use of such tests

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan wrote to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Monday night, expressing his concerns about the use of antigen testing.

Dr Holohan’s letter comes amid continuing differences between the Government and senior public health figures on antigen testing, which is quicker but less accurate than the widely used PCR tests.

Both Dr Holohan and head of modelling for the National Public Health Emergency Team Prof Philip Nolan have warned in recent days about the use of antigen testing, which can be self-administered .

But yesterday Mr Donnelly criticised comments by Prof Nolan likening the use of antigen tests to “snake oil”.

“I don’t think it was a helpful comment, if I’m honest,” he said. He added that he had “great respect” for Prof Nolan and believed that his concern was about people using antigen tests in the “wrong way”.

But there has been significant unease in Government about the opposition from Dr Holohan and Prof Nolan to antigen testing. An expert report by a group led by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Prof Mark Ferguson last month recommended the use of antigen tests to complement existing Covid measures.

Circumventing concerns

Government insiders pointed to the fact that the report was made to the Minister for Health, rather than the chief medical officer, as evidence of Mr Donnelly’s and the Government’s intentions to circumvent Dr Holohan’s concerns.

Last night the Government spokesman acknowledged that “some elements of public health have a different view” to the Cabinet on the use of antigen testing. However, he was clear that Ministers wanted the use of the antigen tests to be rolled out. He said the Government had listened to all opinions and had formed a view that antigen testing should be used.

There is impatience in Government at the slow rollout of antigen testing, which is being piloted in a number of sectors. Ministers believe that it can assist in reopening areas such as sports, artistic and cultural events and, later in the year, schools and colleges. Officials point to the use of antigen tests in other countries, where they have been credited with a high degree of success in detecting infectious cases. Antigen tests are already widely used in some meat plants here. Business groups have pressed the Government to accelerate the use of the tests, which are widely available to buy.

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