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Changes to testing and contact tracing system required – Oireachtas committee

The Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response is calling for changes to the current Covid-19 testing and contact tracing system to make it more robust and efficient.

The committee’s Interim Testing and Tracing Report, published today, makes 22 recommendations including temperature screening of all entrants into the State from overseas and regular testing of all healthcare workers to identify asymptomatic carriers of the novel coronavirus.

The report highlights the important role of testing and contact tracing in enabling the State to remain open.

Chairman of the Committee Michael McNamara TD said: “The committee understands that the system that was put in place in March was done in a hurry and a lot of contingency measures had to be taken given the risk of a pandemic sweeping the State.

“Because of the efforts of all our people, those measures were not needed, but what became clear to the Committee is that another lockdown would be unsustainable. Testing and contact tracing will allow the State to live with and treat outbreaks of Covid as they arise.”

The committee report welcomes the work of the HSE to design a new and test and trace service model and states that the detail of this plan will be crucial to public health outcomes.

The report warns that the potential for hospital overcrowding to negatively impact on virus containment is a serious risk. The committee said this issue needs to be addressed within the HSE’s test and trace plan, and that any investment which could help to resolve the issue should be deployed.

The report also warns the test and trace system is facing two “severe stress tests” in the coming months: travel into and within the State, and the flu season.

Deputy McNamara said: “We will need a system that has capacity to deal with a sudden surge in demand which will happen if we get a flu epidemic in the Autumn given the overlap on symptoms between the flu and Covid-19 and our already over-crowded hospitals and A&E departments.”

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • A “more vigorous” response from the State to ensure contacts of confirmed cases are being tested for the virus and that this is understood to be a “mandatory” public health responsibility
  • Mandatory quarantine upon entry into the State from overseas “should be monitored more closely”
  • Ensuring a sufficient supply of testing equipment should remain a priority
  • The HSE’s new test and trace plan should include “ambitious targets” on testing capacity and turnaround times, with matching investment in healthcare facilities, including isolation rooms
  • Detailed anonymised data about infections – including geographical and demographic information – should be made public as quickly as possible
  • The dangers of unofficial, private tests which may not be reliable and give false confidence should be emphasised in messaging to the public
  • Ongoing assessment of the technical performance of the HSE’s Covid Tracker app and the extent to which it is adding value to test and trace efforts should be done and made public
  • The HSE’s target turnaround time for end-to-end testing should be “one day at most”

The committee held three meetings examining the State’s efforts on testing and contact tracing, including readiness for potential future outbreaks of Covid-19.

The committee also received 15 written submissions from medical and testing experts, communications and data privacy experts, and other individuals and organisations with expertise in the area.

View the full report at https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/committee/dail/33/special_committee_on_covid-19_response/reports/2020/2020-08-05_interim-report-on-testing-and-tracing_en.pdf

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