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HSE told ministers it had enough contact tracers to deal with surge in demand


Temporary measure: HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry. Photo: Colin Keegan

Temporary measure: HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry. Photo: Colin Keegan

Temporary measure: HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry. Photo: Colin Keegan

The HSE repeatedly assured Government ministers that it had enough contact tracers - and could quickly call back into service those they had allowed to return to their original jobs.

Ministers said the regular reassurance had been suddenly found wanting last weekend when the HSE asked infected Covid victims to alert their own contacts.

"Maybe cases took off too quickly," said one minister who said he heard constant promises of capacity and available readiness to scale up staff quickly. But it was also pointed out that the HSE was fully aware that Nphet had been warning for weeks of exponential growth in Covid cases.

Sources indicated that there was some concern that contract tracing was in trouble, yet it was not raised at Cabinet - despite the Tánaiste warning a week ago an "army" of tracers was going to be needed to meet mounting cases.

Over the past weekend, the HSE abruptly abandoned the tracing effort - asking those infected to take over the task themselves. The Government said last night that the current staff of 400 tracers would be boosted to 620 next week, with further increases thereafter to a target of 800. It could ultimately rise to 1,000, the Taoiseach told the Dáil.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly will appear on Morning Ireland today to explain why he was told only late on Tuesday night that some 3,000 positive cases would not have their close associates traced by the HSE.

He said in a statement yesterday that it was "an operational decision" by that body - but didn't explain why he as Health Minister was not consulted about such a massive move, nor promptly informed when it was being put in place.

Meanwhile, in the Dáil the Taoiseach heard a suggestion from Labour Party leader Alan Kelly that track and trace be taken from the HSE and made a separate entity.

"It is interesting that Deputy Kelly has suggested that we separate out the process from the HSE," the Taoiseach said, before adding: "It is a bit late in the day in this pandemic to consider that."

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Mr Martin said: "We are where we are in terms of the recruitment processes. There will be close to 800 people recruited for contact tracing. Testing and contact tracing are connected. We are testing more than we ever tested. I do not think we can now start separating out processes," he said.

But the Taoiseach said a permanent workforce would be created, "as opposed to what happened in the first phase when staff were taken out of physical therapy and occupational therapy".

Explaining the decision, the HSE's chief clinical officer, Dr Colm Henry said: "We know that people would prefer a personal call at what can be a worrying time and we would prefer to make those calls and to continue to do that going into the future.

"For this temporary measure, we should reiterate that the contact tracing process has always been led by the information given to us by the people we are calling, so we are confident that the people involved will be able to identify their own contacts and will contact them as soon as possible."

The HSE is making calls as usual to people who tested positive from last Monday onwards.

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