DIY contact testing in a time of national lockdown


Sir, – It has become clear in the last few weeks that we face a dreary cycle of tightening and relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions for the foreseeable future.

Can we at least avoid the arguments and politicising that has also plagued us recently?

We have a clear five-level plan. Let us now attach requisite figures to each level . In other words, if your county reaches a certain set figure of infection per 100,000 on the 14-day figure (or the R level), then it moves up to Level 1 ,2 ,3 ,4 or 5.

Obviously these bands would have to be reasonably wide to avoid too much movement up or down.

Conversely, when infection levels drop there would be a move down the levels too ( this could be time-delayed to make sure the improvement is “sticking” ).

This would of course require adaptability from everyone affected but we are moving into that situation anyway.

This new system would remove any perceived unfairness about all areas being treated equally regardless of infection rates.

It would also crucially provide people with a sense of agency – if they can keep their county’s figures down through their behaviour then their area can hopefully avoid the most stringent lockdown.

Meanwhile, we would not need the constant media game and to and fro between the Cabinet and Nphet, and both bodies could concentrate on what they should be focusing on – improving test-and-trace and Ireland’s woefully small intensive-care unit (ICU) capacity. – Yours, etc,




Sir, – A consistent theme runs through much of the news coverage in Wednesday’s Irish Times.

Paul Cullen has been a rock of good sense in his analysis of Ireland’s response to Covid-19. I think he writes more in sorrow than in anger that we reduced testing when it needed to be increased; that the summer, when cases dropped to low levels, was wasted; and that, while more will now be invested in testing and tracing, we might not be where we are if this had been done earlier (“Six weeks of lockdown hardship offers little by way of end reward”, Analysis, October 21st).

Tiernan O’Neill, who comes across as a very dedicated teacher, is principal of a Deis school in Limerick (Carl O’Brien, “‘Absolutely imperative’ Deis school stays open amid Covid, says principal”, Education, October 21st).

He describes our testing-and-tracing system as “shambolic”. He asks what has been going on in the Department of Education for the past seven or eight months, given that everyone agrees on the importance of keeping schools safely open and yet we still don’t have a fit-for-purpose, fast-tracked, school-specific testing and tracing system.

Carl O’Brien writes that all the signs are that the testing and tracing system is creaking and that there is mounting frustration among many school leaders and staff over long delays in testing and tracking and inconsistencies over what constitutes a close contact.

And the tin hat is your lead news story of October 21st, “HSE skips calls to thousands of close contacts”.

Of course it takes time to hone any new system to perfection. Yet almost a year after the first reported cases of Covid-19 and eight months after Ireland’s first case, the HSE’s system is now one where it tests and we trace.

The HSE manager in charge of testing and tracing says that the HSE is asking a limited number of people with positive cases to do their own contact tracing. As she must know, a limited number is any number less than infinity.

The dogs in the street have been telling us since January that a functioning test-and-trace system would be critical to containing the virus and to efforts to keep our economy open.

Nearly all of the world’s largest pharma and medical devices businesses and technology companies have significant operations here, so one might think we were well placed to be a world leader in testing and tracing.

In August, six months into Ireland’s experience of the virus, and as the Minister for Health warned of the possibility of a new lockdown, the HSE chief told us of plans “being finalised” to embrace technology changes in our system for testing and tracing (“HSE chief outlines plan for surge in hospitals”, News, August 26th).

In one of your cover stories on August 20th you quoted Green Party leader Eamon Ryan as saying that our testing and tracing system had been caught off guard and that this was the fault of the entire political and administrative system.

We have known since the beginning of this year that a superb test-and-trace system was key to managing the pandemic.

I have not heard or read of any politician who did not want such a system.

The recurring problems with our system are a failure not of politics but of administration and management.

On September 18th, you reported Paul Reid, the HSE chief executive, as saying that the United Kingdom’s test-and- trace system was close to collapse. I thought at the time this was offering an unnecessary hostage to fortune. WB Yeats must have had something similar in mind when he wrote of “a beggar on horseback (lashing) a beggar on foot”. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 6.

Sir, – Michael McDowell argues strongly in favour of making available all advice and all data upon which public health decisions are made so that it can be understood and evaluated (“What exactly is the price of accepting this Nphet advice?”, Opinion & Analysis, October 22nd).

The most profound decisions ever made that impact on every citizen in this country are being based on data which the data owners consider to be none of our business.

This proprietorial sense of ownership tranforms the data into a tool of the powerful.

Our citizenry is fearful of what lies ahead.

Why is the Government fearful of transparency? – Yours, etc,



Dublin 14.

Sir, – Without the infrastructure, we are going to stumble from lockdown to lockdown.

This has been known for a long time, and the leadership of Nphet appears to have failed, as their only solutions are lockdowns and academic studies clouded in secrecy rather than action.

Nphet now needs to be stood down and the Department of Health and the HSE need to manage the health systems for living with this pandemic.

The Government must move to have the infrastructure required in place before this current lockdown is lifted and to ensure it is managed by people who can do so, and not by an emergency team that has demonstrated it cannot. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 18.

Sir, – Would it not have made more sense to enforce fully the restrictions in Level 3 rather than penalise everyone in level 5? – Yours, etc,



Dublin 5.

Sir, – Reading the media reaction to the announcement of a move to Level 5 restrictions, it’s striking how much it is in terms that do nothing at all to encourage evidence-based decision-making by public figures.

If changing course is always to be painted with the negative phraseology such as U-turn, volte-face, climbdown, or humiliation, then it only serves to ensure that people cling to existing positions long after the facts have changed and those positions have outlived their usefulness.

Imagine how much more challenging various complicated negotiations such as the Northern peace process might have been if each movement had been described in terms likely to underscore the downside of taking that step.

The media repeatedly reveals its own editorial attitude to changes by the type of words it chooses to use to describe an unfolding situation. Actions the media outlet favours are reported as courageous, bold, imaginative, and generous.

It would be better for us all if the media focused on reporting the facts of what has happened and leave it to the reader to decide if the actions were a climbdown or courageous. The recent announcement seems to me to be neither, merely a common-sense recognition of an evolving environment. And what’s wrong with a bit of common sense now and then? – Yours, etc,



Dublin 3.

Sir, – I agree that we can find a way through this by digging deep, and if we dig deep enough we might emerge after six weeks – in New Zealand. – Yours, etc, 



Dublin 14.