HSE inquiry rejects whistle blower’s ‘serious allegations’ of ‘lockdown parties’
An investigation into allegations of “parties” at contact tracing centres during Covid-19 lockdown confirmed birthday gatherings and celebration lunches with cakes, free sandwiches and individually wrapped sweets — but no breaches of public health rules.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) launched the inquiry after a whistle blower claimed five “lockdown celebratory parties” at contact tracing centres in Limerick and Cork were “in breach of Covid-19 guidelines and may be illegal”.
The report, obtained by the Sunday Independent, confirmed the five “celebratory” events took place but social distancing and mask wearing was in place.
The first party was a lunch to mark a retirement at Cork Contact Tracing Centre (CTC) on February 26 last year, at the tail end of the worst Covid-19 surge.
“Sandwiches, cupcakes, tea/coffee/water” were offered to staff on duty and bought in accordance with HSE financial regulations — one of the whistle blower’s allegations was that cakes were billed to the agency. The report said the “gifts and celebratory cake” were bought by staff.
“Four or five staff gave speeches lasting between two and four minutes and social distancing was observed,” the report says.
“It was reported that staff were filtering in and out taking sandwiches with them and wishing the employee in question well on retirement as they left."
The event took place at a time of strict public health rules including two-metre social distancing, mask-wearing indoors and a 5km travel limit. Essential workers were advised: “Keep your
guard up — both for employees and employers.”
Staff at Cork were “very safety conscious”, the report says, and witnesses reported between five to 10 people in the room at any one time and were socially distanced. “No witnesses spoken to observed any public health protocols/guidelines being breached.”
Another event at the Limerick CTC in November last year marked the first anniversary of the centre’s opening, with food laid out in the boardroom at lunchtime.
The two-metre and mask-wearing rules were among public health guidelines still in force.
Photos of this event showed evidence of “some” compliance with social distancing, "evidence of mask wearing” and open windows in the room, the report says, and those not eating or drinking in the conference room “left their medical grade face masks on”.
At a third event at Limerick CTC in December, a birthday cake was produced at a “performance meeting” attended by five staff members in “a large office”.
The cake had been bought by staff rather than the HSE, according to the report, and the candle on the cake was extinguished with a book, rather than blown out.
However, all those present “were working together in the same environment throughout the day and reported strict adherence to public health guidelines enforced in Limerick CTC at all times”, the report says.
In January this year, “tea and cake” were consumed by five staff members at the Limerick centre during a 25-minute lunch break to mark the birthday of an employee.
“The cake was purchased by staff,” the report states. “Social distancing was maintained. It was confirmed by staff present that the office window and door were open, and masks were only removed for a short period to have tea/coffee.”
At another January event, “tea, cake and individually wrapped sweets” were made available to staff in the canteen to mark the departure of a colleague. Approximately 13 staff attended the canteen over the course of the 30 minutes, but public health guidelines had eased by then and social distancing was no longer required.
The HSE released an executive summary of its investigation report under the Freedom of Information Act.
It concludes: “In summary, upon examining the details provided by the witnesses interviewed, concerning the movement of staff and protocols in place at the centres on these dates, and comparing this with the public health guidelines that were in place at the time of each alleged event, it was found that no breach of the public health guidelines took place.”
The whistle blower’s lockdown party allegations emerged in February against a backdrop of workplace tensions at the contact tracing centre in Limerick.
Secretary general of the Department of Health, Robert Watt, asked Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE, for an “urgent” report on the “serious allegations”.