Business of Joint Committee

Following our private meeting yesterday afternoon, are the minutes of 14 October 2020, the actions relating to correspondence and additions to the work programme agreed?

I just want to raise one item which I raised yesterday in private session. I raised several issues where I sought reports from the HSE, one of which was on testing and tracing.

Several members made the point yesterday that the anecdotal evidence coming back from people working in that area is that it is a system which is under real pressure. There is a lack of training and staff with a real problem with morale. There is also a problem with the ability of that system to work. What we sought yesterday was a detailed report from the HSE. That has been overtaken by events today where we had serious information put into the public domain of up to 2,500 sick people who are being asked to become contact tracers themselves and will receive text messages instead of phone calls. That is completely and absolutely unacceptable. This is a complete mess for which the Government must bear responsibility.

I am asking that the committee meets next week on this issue. I know we will be in recess next week but it is fundamentally important. It is rare that I ask for any committee to meet outside of when it is scheduled to meet, but such is the seriousness of this issue, however, and the impact it is having on people. It must be borne in mind that this is coming at a time when we are going into more restrictions where much is being asked of individuals in terms of level 5. The least that people expect is that the State and the Government will get its house in order to ensure testing and tracing are what they should be. There is a real problem and we have to get a grip on it as a committee. I am asking the Chairman that the committee will meet next week to bring in the HSE, the Minister, if necessary, and whoever is responsible for testing and tracing in order that we can put questions to them as to what the problems are and why it got to this point. It is a reasonable request and I ask that it will be supported by other members of the committee.

A number of members raised this yesterday. Does anyone disagree with the idea of having the meeting next week?

I am in two minds. I listened to all the reports and the radio interviews this morning as well. There is a danger we will further add to the burden faced by those on the ground in trying to deal with testing and tracing. It is obvious they were overwhelmed last week by virtue of the large numbers of people who were tested, had reported for testing and some who had not reported for second turns. All of that is creating a burden on the system. We need to acknowledge the work they are doing in challenging circumstances and recognise they are doing their very best.

I agree with Deputy Cullinane. It is the context in which one phrases it. If one married it with what Deputy Durkan said, namely, acknowledged the severe pressure they are under, the number of tests undertaken and how it has been wrapped up, it is appropriate the health committee invites them in.

There is a dual problem. There is a problem which testers and tracers face in the context of rising numbers. More than 1,200 cases on average a day is part of the problem. Equally, part of the problem is a lack of capacity. This has been flagged time and again by many of us with staff coming to us telling us there are problems. Time and again this has been raised.

I have examples. There are 64 medical laboratory aides who are in a pool who could have been employed since July but have not been taken on by the State. There are 14 medical scientists. Why in God's name have those staff not been employed? There are 64 clerical officers and yet we are told there is not enough staff. It is the case that rising numbers, in part, are putting huge pressure on the system. Equally, there are problems with lack of capacity and we did not use the summer months to build it up. In fact, many staff who were seconded, rightly so at the time, were brought back to what they were doing and not replaced.

There is a real problem here. I do not believe two hours of their schedule next week - if they can do it remotely - would be too onerous. Given the scale of the challenge we all face, what people are being asked to do and the sacrifices people are being asked to make, we need to look at this issue. It really has upset people that more than 2,500 people will have to become contact tracers themselves. We should meet next week and I am asking members of the committee to support that request.

For those who have arrived late, we are suggesting we try and meet next week to deal with the whole issue of track and trace. It was discussed at the private meeting, but because of the new report it is felt that it is vital that we sit as a committee next week.

What is the purpose of the meeting and who are we proposing to invite in? There is basic information that we need. We all have lists of people such as science graduates, GPs and many other people well qualified to do it who applied months ago but have not been called. We need a response on that.

There is also a view that, at this point, when we get to 1,000 cases a day, those cannot be traced. The numbers involved are just too vast. That is an issue. There is no doubt that serious time was lost and an opportunity missed during the summer to do this. There is a certain amount we can find out from people. It needs to be a productive meeting. It would be helpful if we had some of the answers to our questions in advance so that we are not starting from scratch.

We can ask the HSE to come in.

I concur with Deputy Cullinane's proposal. We need to get our heads around the reason why people seconded to the contact tracing service were redeployed back to their original posts. We are in a pandemic and we need to get the rationale from their perspective. People are asking the questions out there. We need to be able to elicit the answers on behalf of the people.

There is a general consensus that we go ahead with the meeting, taking on board what Deputy Shortall said. We can have a discussion later on about it. I am conscious that there are witnesses waiting. Is that agreed?

Yes, but I would like, if it were possible, for a full briefing document in advance.

Given this six-week period we are going through, it is, to quote a radio anchor yesterday, an opportunity for the State to get its house in order in respect of some of the areas of Covid in order that we come out of this six weeks with a plan or some kind of learnings which we can bring forward to ensure we are not continually locking down and can bring in whatever measures are necessary to assist us in that.

The other issue is that we are due to get a briefing on the Health (Amendment) Bill 2020 from the Minister later this evening. I am just putting people on standby for that. It will possibly be around 5.30 p.m., if people are available.

Why can we not have a time agreed now?

We are waiting on the Minister to find out when he is available.

That is just not on.

People should not have to be hanging around.

Can I proceed on the basis that we will go ahead with that briefing at 5.30 p.m.?

On the meeting next week, it is not just the HSE. It predominantly deals with the testing and has overall responsibility for tracing but it is important to separate the two. Tracing is predominantly the job of public health experts. With some of this stuff, when one asks Mr. Paul Reid a question about testing and tracing, he says public health or NPHET instructs the HSE on what to do. We need a public health expert at the meeting as well, such as Ms Niamh O'Beirne who is the lead on testing and tracing. She would be the person to see.

Can we discuss this after the meeting? We can have a Zoom meeting or something.