More investment needed in testing, tracing - Harris

Updated / Sunday, 20 Sep 2020 17:29

Simon Harris said Ireland is testing more people for Covid-19 than most other European countries

The Minister for Further and Higher Education said that if we get to a situation in this country where we need more than 100,000 Covid-19 tests a week, "we're in a very, very bad place".  

Simon Harris said Ireland is testing more people for Covid-19 than most other European countries but admitted there is a need for more investment. 

Speaking on RTÉ's The Week in Politics, he said that at the moment around 14,000 tests a day are being carried out, the vast majority of which are returned negative.

Mr Harris said: "What we have to be doing here, every single one of us, is reducing the spread of this virus."

He said there has been "significant investment in extra staff" to improve turnaround times in the community, and that a dedicated workforce is being put in place specifically for testing.

He acknowledged there "is a need to continue to invest in our testing and tracing infrastructure, absolutely" but there is no need to mislead people by suggesting that an increase in testing capacity would reduce the need for restrictions.

"You have to increase testing infrastructure and we're doing that, but you also need to lessen the need for people to have tests."

Mr Harris said the Government "acted very rapidly" on the National Public Health Emergency Team's NPHET's advice earlier this week.

"There is a very, very narrow window here now, where we the Irish people have a choice," he said. "We're at a crossroads. This could go one of two ways. We have to act now to make sure we do not go back to where we were in March or April."

He said "swift action" was taken in Kildare, Laois and Offaly, and that simply shutting meat factories in those counties would not have been enough.

"Doctors did not agree [with shutting plants] because where do people from the meat plants live?" he said. "They live in the community, and it was very important that we didn't allow the spread of the virus. Serial testing was carried out."

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We are at a crossroads with the coronavirus

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said it is "infuriating" that we do not have the necessary test and trace capacity in place six months after the beginning of the pandemic.

The centre of any plan to manage Covid-19 should be extensive testing and tracing, he added.

"The Government made a big deal this week about hitting a million tests. But Denmark, which has just a million more people than Ireland, hit three million tests in the last week. So it's completely inadequate; it's clear the Government tried to do it on the cheap, and now we're going to pay the price for that."

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said a warning from Health Service Executive CEO Paul Reid that we do not have the ability to test as much as we need to is "incredibly worrying".

She said that this, along with "mixed messaging", has caused "so much unease".

"There's so much in the way of lack of clarity, people need to feel reassured that these new guidelines can be adhered to."

Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster said the Government "had all summer" to get ready for mass testing and they did not do it.

She said both mass testing and a 24-hour turnaround time are needed. "We can pay for testing or we can pay for lockdown," she said.

Moving other areas to Level 3 'a possibility'

Separately, Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan said "it is a possibility" that other parts of the country could be moved to Level 3 restrictions in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Speaking on RTÉ's This Week, he said he hopes we can avoid that but we need to be careful.

This is "not just a Dublin issue," he said, calling on the rest of the country to increase their efforts.

"It's not easy, no one wants to be doing it," he said. "But that systematic approach which has been put in place now will help and is key to managing this whole thing."

Mr Ryan said testing capacity has increased, and it has been effective.

"There was a 25% increase last week compared to the previous week and the system was able to manage," he said. "There was about 15,000 tests a day, which is close to the capacity we have."

He said more could be done, and that is why the HealthService Executive is deploying additional staff, but in comparison to other jurisdictions "our system is holding up".

The best way of ensuring the testing system can continue to manage is to "stop the virus in its tracks," he added.

Mr Ryan said is not the fault of pubs and restaurants that restrictions had to be brought in, and everyone agrees that the hospitality industry has done "everything to try and protect their customers".

"But there is a problem," he said. "We now have the virus in our community. And it's not just as it was a number of months ago where you could identify it to a number of factories or other centres, it is out there in a fairly widespread basis."