I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy. The answer may be a bit long but I will supply the Deputy with the full text if we do not get through it.
On the advice of the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, the HSE developed the capacity to conduct 100,000 tests per week. I subsequently met the HSE and requested that it look at increasing the capacity. This is now in place and the HSE currently has standing capacity to test 120,000 people every week and progress is being made on looking at going higher than that should we need it. The testing and tracing regime compares very favourably internationally in terms of tests per size of population. Ireland ranks eighth highest out of 24 EU countries and the UK in terms of the number of tests being completed at the moment.
The median time it takes from a swab being taken to the communication of a laboratory result is now 29 hours in community testing, 28 hours in serial testing and 28 hours in acute settings. In the week to 27 October, the median time to complete all calls for contact tracing was 1.8 days.
A significant number of staff from other areas of the HSE were deployed to assist in the testing and tracing programme. The HSE is now moving these professionals back and redeploying them to their front-line posts, which is important.
My focus is on what must be done to minimise the risks of future large increases in positive cases. One of the really important tools is an effective testing and contact tracing programme. The HSE is currently running a nationwide recruitment campaign for swabbers and contact tracers. Some 180 additional swabbers have been appointed to date, while additional candidates are currently going through the process. Some 500 additional contact tracers are being hired to provide sufficient capacity for contact tracing with 280 already in place and a further 60 to 70 being appointed every week. By way of comparison, by mid-September, there were 292 people deployed to contact tracing. By 30 October, this had gone up to 683 people deployed to contact tracing and it is rising.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
At the request of NPHET, HIQA recently undertook a rapid health technology assessment, HTA, on the use of alternatives to laboratory-based real-time RT-PCR to detect cases of current infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19 disease. HIQA’s report was published 21 October. HIQA advised that adoption of alternative approaches to testing requires consideration of factors including clinical performance, sensitivity and specificity, turnaround time, and ease of use. However, while rapid antigen detection tests have the potential to expand test capacity, reduce test turnaround times and improve access, the antigen tests available or currently in development show lower sensitivity than that observed with the rRT-PCR Test, the current gold standard.
I have asked the HSE to put in place a systematic and robust process for the rollout of a series of clinical validation exercises across a range of targeted settings and population cohorts. The HSE has established a group to review the antigen tests currently available and how they might be deployed in clinical and non-clinical settings.
The HSE has worked intensively over the past number of months to put in place a comprehensive testing and tracing operation. We will continue to pursue a robust testing strategy. This will include continuation of my Department’s work with the HSE to improve turnaround times, consistency and our end-to-end testing pathway. This ensures the system is responsive to nature of the current and expected future demand for testing and tracing. Testing and contact tracing continues to be a key component of the Government’s response to the pandemic.