HSE spent €700,000 a month since March on external Covid-19 consultants

Seán Sherlock criticises health service for cost of contact-tracing, PPE and ICT advisors

External consultants on contact tracing were hired by the HSE. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

External consultants on contact tracing were hired by the HSE. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The Health Service Executive (HSE) strategy of hiring outside consultants is being questioned after it emerged it has spent over €700,000 a month since the Covid-19 pandemic began on “hired guns”, including on its contact-tracing system.

Chief operating officer of the HSE Anne O’Connor confirmed that “in the period since March 2020 the HSE has incurred expenditure of approximately €5 million for external support to Covid-19 critical programmes of work”.

The projects consultants have worked on include testing and contact tracing, procurement and modelling/forecasting of(personal and protective equipment requirements, “ICT enablement and data architecture”, modelling on capacity and demand in the service during the pandemic, clinical programmes and “strategic workforce planning”.

She said the level and type of support consultancy firms provided to the HSE since early March “has been essential in supporting the range, scale and complexity of services required to deal with the dynamic Covid-19 pandemic response demands”.

Seán Sherlock of the Labour Party said the €5 million spent on ‘hired guns’ was a ‘phenomenal amount of money’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Seán Sherlock of the Labour Party said the €5 million spent on ‘hired guns’ was a ‘phenomenal amount of money’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

But Labour TD Seán Sherlock said the €5 million spent on “hired guns” was a “phenomenal amount of money”.

He said “it demands accountability. Some of the monies spent relate to consultancy on contact tracing. One would have to ask why, since March, the contact-tracing model hasn’t operated with maximum efficiency?”

Last weekend when the system became overwhelmed the HSE asked more than 2,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus to phone their own contacts in order to prevent a backlog of contact-tracing calls.

The health service said the collapse of the system was the result of a sudden surge in cases and a lack of staff to deal with them. HSE chief executive Paul Reid subsequently apologised to those asked to phone their own contacts.

Mr Sherlock said “the taxpayer demands a return for such a spend. The breakdown in the contact-tracing model last weekend deserves interrogation because it calls into question the efficacy of bringing in so-called hired guns to this national effort.”

Ms O’Connor had written to the Cork East TD about the spending on outside consultancies following his parliamentary question on the issue to the Minister for Health. She leads the Integrated National Operational Hub (INOH), the HSE established in March, in response to the pandemic.

She told Mr Sherlock in the letter “I can assure you that the requirement for external consultancy supports for critical Covid-19 projects and programmes of work is kept under constant review”.

A number of external consultancies made “offers of support” including firms already working for the heath service.

The consultants provided support for Covid-19 critical projects to the end of March “on a pro-bono basis with no cost to the HSE for the work undertaken”.

“The HSE has also agreed specific terms of engagement with each of the firms for work undertaken by them as part of the Covid-19 response in the period since 1st April 2020 at reduced rates,” Ms O’Connor said.

Defending the HSE’s use of external consultants Ms O’Connor said in the letter that each firm had “significant prior experience and knowledge in particularly relevant areas within the HSE through existing SLAs (service level agreements) and on-going projects and so therefore were positioned to quickly take up programmes of work at scale in response to the Covid-19 demands”.

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