At midnight we will enter our second lockdown of this pandemic. Workers, families and communities are being asked to make enormous sacrifices once again. People will lose their jobs and businesses are being told to close. Families are being told to stay apart and lives are being disrupted and put on hold. Understandably, there is a great deal of anxiety. There is also anger and frustration, but I have no doubt people will play their part.
In asking people to make these sacrifices the Government must also play its part. The lockdown suppresses the virus and buys us time. That is all. The most important thing we have in our fight against Covid is an efficient and effective testing and tracing system. It is hard to believe that we are nearly eight months into this pandemic and the Government has failed to get this right. This matter has been raised endlessly with the Government during those eight months. The contact tracing system became so swamped at the weekend that it completely broke down and collapsed. Now, between 2,000 and 2,500 people who tested positive for Covid-19 will today receive a text message from the HSE and they will be asked to tell their own close contacts of their positive test and, in turn, to ask those contacts to immediately contact their GP to seek a test. We are asking people who have tested positive to do the job of a contact tracer and to give their contacts health advice. This is a sure recipe for infections being missed and further outbreaks not being caught in time.
I accept that the growth in demand will have put the system under enormous pressure at the weekend. What I do not accept is the Government's failure to provide the necessary level of staff and resources. The warning signs were there. Dr. Anne Dee, a specialist in public health in the mid-west, rang the alarm bell loudly and clearly two weeks ago. She made it clear that regional health departments do not have enough staff to do contact tracing. She said:
We can’t cope with the volume of work, there are not enough of us. Outbreaks will be missed, and the situation will get worse. The regional public health system is as close to collapse as it has been at any time before.
I commend our public health teams that are doing Trojan work in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They understand that contact tracing is absolutely essential to getting in front of the virus, controlling its spread and protecting our people. We also know that failure to get this right will mean a cycle of damaging lockdowns, with all the hardship and suffering that entails. The reality is that we have to lock down when the virus is out of control and we lose control of the virus when testing and tracing do not work.
Will the Taoiseach indicate what is going wrong that we still do not have the number of contact tracers that we need? Promises were made by the Government in July and again in September that recruitment would take place. Why is that is taking so long? We need to get to a point where we have a 24-hour turnaround for testing and a 24-hour turnaround for contact tracing. Does the Taoiseach accept that that is where we need to be by the end of this six-week lockdown? If he does accept this, which I hope he does, can we get weekly progress reports on how many staff are being hired and how we are progressing towards meeting these goals?