A blind man could have seen what was coming down the tracks, according to public health expert Professor Pat Wall.
or weeks, Covid-19 numbers had been ratcheting up on the Covid-19 data system. Behind each number is a person who tested positive for the virus, their details uploaded from the labs to a database held on the cloud that public health departments and the country's eight contact tracing centres can access via the web. It was clear to everyone what way the figures were going.
Not least the Health Service Executive (HSE). Every day, consultants reporting to the HSE track each centre's "KPIs" - key performance indicators: the key one being the number of Covid-19 cases they get through each day.
"At the close of every day, each of the eight centres sends in their returns to the business consultants (and there are plenty of them) who are overseeing the process," said Prof Wall, who helps run the contact tracing centre at University College Dublin.
"So, there are no surprises in the rising numbers as the business consultants monitor the number of calls made and the number remaining every day. And they have access to the database."
On Saturday, October 10, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) announced just over 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 - the highest number since the height of the pandemic in April.
On Sunday, October 11, the backlog of cases on the Covid-19 contact tracing database stood at 1,000 cases - or 1,000 people who were waiting for their positive test result.
On October 14, the backlog reached 1,800. On Saturday, October 17, the number of people waiting for a positive test result had almost doubled to 3,400 people.
By last Tuesday, more than 4,000 people were waiting to be called from contact tracers to be told of their positive test result. That day, the HSE instructed contact tracing centres to "ignore" any cases that had been entered on the database prior to October 19 who had not yet been reached. A backlog of 2,500 people who tested positive had effectively been "wiped" from the contact tracing system.
A week earlier, the HSE had decided to ease the pressure on the system by telling people their positive result by text message and to await a call from contact tracers. Now they were telling 2,500 people who tested positive for the virus to do their own contact tracing.
The HSE may have had little choice but to relieve the pressure on a massive 4,000-strong backlog by wiping 2,500 people from the contact tracing system.
But the decision to leave people with the virus to their own devices when it comes to warning others they may have been infected has been described as regrettable by the chief executive of the HSE, Paul Reid, and its wisdom is being increasingly questioned by public health experts.
To make matters worse, the dramatic news leaked to the media before the HSE informed the Government. The Taoiseach Micheál Martin found out when he was texted the Irish Times report on Tuesday evening that the contact tracing system was so "overwhelmed" over the weekend that people who tested positive were asked to do their own contact tracing.
"But was it overwhelmed or was it that we just haven't had enough bodies on the pitch?" said Prof Wall.
"A blind man could see the numbers rising and would realise we hadn't enough operators or centres. They knew that and have been talking about building capacity for months.
"We've been talking for the past few months of building testing capability, building swabbing capability but we didn't build sufficient capacity to trace. The recruitment was too slow. It's as simple as that," he said.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar touched on the underlying issue in widely reported comments to the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting about the decision. The HSE had promised the Government that it would hire extra contact tracers ahead of the second wave - but that clearly had not happened, he said. Hiring contact tracers was one of the least expensive measures in the Covid-19 battle but one of the most effective, and the funding was there for the HSE to hire them. The consequence of leaving 2,500 people to do their own contact tracing and for those contacts to arrange their own test was "dumping" the Covid-19 tracing problem on GPs.
In a statement this weekend, the HSE said that contact tracing "scaled up over the summer with over 550 staff now working in tracing". "The first 750 people are now through the interview process and over 270 newly recruited contact tracers have started. Following training, we expect to continue to bring in 60-70 new staff each week," it said.
However, a contact tracing recruitment campaign aimed at students and recent graduates in public health medicine was only launched last month. At the time, Niamh O'Beirne, an EY management consultant seconded to head the HSE's contact tracing programme, explained at the time that the positions were only being advertised "now" because "over the month of July" they had been building a new contact tracing model.
When the first batch of contact-tracing recruits reported for work a fortnight ago at UCD, the centre was already coping with a huge increase in cases.
The centre at UCD, run by Associate Professor Mary Codd and Prof Wall coordinated 300 volunteers and processed up to 600 calls a day at full capacity throughout the pandemic. It now has a memorandum of understanding with the HSE and some of its volunteer contact tracers are now on contracts. The core team are recent graduates of the masters in public health programme, whose alumni include Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, chief medical officer Tony Holohan and his deputy Ronan Glynn.
Training in contact tracers takes time. New recruits must do an online training course with the HSE and spend days shadowing the experienced callers. They are entrusted with divulging sensitive and often distressing information to the people who are about to learn that their lives and those they are in contact with are about to be seriously disrupted.
Experienced volunteers, like Eamonn Gormley, a professor of immunology at UCD who contact traced through the pandemic, have learned to pick up what's coming down the tracks. Contact tracers were among the first to identify outbreaks in nursing homes in the early days of the pandemic. "It was horrendous," he recalled. "I phoned the number. It was clearly a nursing home. I asked to speak to the patient. I was told by the nurse probably not. He was about to die in the next five minutes. She said to me: 'What should I do?'"
He said: "Another day I had seven people to phone in nursing homes, and five of them had died that day. You are speaking to next of kin, who are suffering the loss, and you are telling them their loved one had passed away."
Come September, contact tracers were again witnessing the beginnings of another wave of the virus.
Only this time, for every infected person, there were many more people who were infected. During one call to a man in a rural town recently, the individual was asked: "Who are your contacts? He said, 'Everybody.' I said, 'Could you be more specific?' He said, 'Everybody in the town.' They had an after-match celebration in the town - and the whole town was out."
He can see how the virus continues to ricochet around the community weeks after the celebrations have passed: one of his calls last week was to a mother and her young child from that locality who both had tested positive.
"There were no surprises. We were always able to predict where it would go next."
In one of the warren of rooms where contact tracers work in isolation, John Reuel is off the phone from a student in Galway who reckoned he picked up the virus from his friend, who tested positive.
But worryingly, for the past few days, most of his phone calls have been to nurses and healthcare workers, including a dentist.
"The dentist was asymptomatic. He had five patients in one clinic and 10 in another clinic, which he saw. Then there was the receptionist and the office administrator and so on. Luckily, he had all the contacts," said Mr Reuel, who has just completed his masters degree in public health. "That was a long call."
"Around 40 healthcare workers are testing positive every day," added Prof Wall.
It might seem reasonable to expect 2,500 people who have Covid-19 will do the right thing and tell all of their close contacts, so they can collectively stop the virus in its tracks.
Many public health specialists are furious at, as they see it, a decision to abdicate responsibility for a key pillar in the test, trace, isolate mantra in the fight against Covid-19 - even if it was a one-off measure.
"Public health doctors and the contact tracers often identify common exposure events (either people or sites) and uncover clusters. They regularly link apparent sporadic cases together. We have now lost this capability for the 2,500 who are now doing their own contact tracing," he said.
"Some people live in overcrowded accommodation and some in direct provision centres where self-isolation is impossible and viral transmission inevitable, and these cases are escalated to public health who refer them to City West for isolation. This cannot happen if people are doing their own contact tracing."
Prof Wall also pointed out that if any of those 2,500 people downloaded the contact tracing app, it won't be of much use to them. The app is designed to track symptoms, get advice and importantly allows positive patients to anonymously warn other app users who they were in close contact with.
"The expensive hyped contact tracing app requires a code that the contact tracers give to the confirmed cases, so how will it be activated now?" he said.
Then there are older people, those who don't speak English, work in low-paid jobs, or those with special needs. "You cannot replace the work of the public health doctors with a text," said Prof Wall.
Underlying the problems are the shortage of public health specialists, who have longstanding feelings they are undervalued that have intensified during the pandemic. They have been fighting for years for a proper consultant- led public health service and equality of pay too. Although pay rises have been approved in theory, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) has attacked the "lip service" being paid to the sector.
Dr Ina Kelly, chair of the public health committee of the IMO, said public health medicine is so under resourced it is difficult to attract new recruits.
"Public health medicine is the most unattractive branch of medicine at the moment. It is treated unequally in relation to all the other branches," she said. She wonders if it is "because we are mostly women? It is a branch of medicine that is predominantly women," she said. She added that the people who go into public health "do not have PhDs in self-promotion".
"It is a branch of medicine that is about prevention. Prevention, if you are successful, is invisible. The only reason it is in the news at all is because of Covid-19. Catastrophes, disasters, crises, they happen when prevention failure occurs."