Covid is the biggest threat facing the State faces but “it didn’t even get a mention” at this week’s Cabinet meeting, the Dáil has been told.
The Social Democrats attacked what the party sees as official indecision, especially on the issue of subsidising the cost of antigen testing.
Co-leader Róisín Shortall said there was a “lack of urgency” in rolling out subsidised tests.
“The lack of urgency and failure to respond at speed to rapidly escalating emergency is truly shocking,” Ms Shortall said.
She warned that time was running out before the Christmas season, while the Chief Medical Officer had urged people in particular sectors to use antigen tests two or three times a week.
She asked why no decision had been made on the proposed subsidies for the cost of test.
But the Taoiseach said the Government has to get best value for the public purse and “can’t just dive into” an antigen test scheme.
Mr Martin said antigen testing was a “supplementary tool” and had been rolled out in a large variety of sectors.
But he placed the emphasis on the individual - and he praised the public for its efforts to cut down on socialising and contacts.
This was having a positive impact on the situation, he said, without giving any details of the reasons for the delay in bringing forward subsidised antigen tests.
Ms Shortall said the Chief Medical Officer two weeks ago advised that anyone engaged in “high risk” activities, “most of which simply involve just going out or meeting people”, should do an antigen test twice a week.
The Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, was due to bring his related proposals to Cabinet this week. But it was now not expected until next week, she said.
Antigen tests are currently “very expensive,” she said, and the Minister had initially said they would be free, but instead they were to be subsidised – but there had been no progress.
“When are we going to get a decision?” she asked, supported by Mick Barry TD of Solidarity-PBP, who said it was two years into the pandemic and the Government had failed to anticipate the situation.
His colleague, Richard Boyd Barrett, said people around the country could not get a PCR test. They could go privately and pay €99, he said, highlighting the two-tier imbalance of the health system.
Ms Shortall said: “We are in the midst of an emergency and people want to use all the tools available,” she added.
The chief executive of the Irish Pharmacy Union had said on Virgin Media that it was very difficult for us and the HSE to put a plan in place to roll out antigen testing “because the Government hasn’t made a decisions about what they want to do,” she said.
He had said that “the Government hasn’t the foggiest idea of what kind of subsidy scheme it wants,” she added.
Ms Shortall told Mr Martin: “This is a mess. We know antigen testing isn’t a silver bullet, but they are useful, although many people cannot afford to use them.”
The Taoiseach said there had been a significant expansion of antigen testing given out for free by the Government, including 61,000 free to close contacts of a positive test.
Another 101,000 tests had been given out in the agriculture sector, he said.
A scheme is being developed “but we have to get best value for the public purse – that’s important that we don’t just dive into it,” he said.
“But that will happen, and we will bring you the details.” He said antigen testing had been "expanded rapidly" in the last six months. He did not have "a specific date" for the tabling of the test subsidy proposals
Mr Martin added, on calls for a takeover of private hospitals: “We can’t just rock up and buy a hospital.”