The Department of Health and the HSE are the competent authorities in matters relating to public health. My Department continues to contribute to the HSE-chaired National Outbreak Control Team as part of the whole-of-Government response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is supporting the HSE in the context of local outbreak teams, overseeing a programme of serial testing of workers at larger food plants and other businesses.
Serial testing (i.e. four weeks of weekly testing) at food production facilities started on 14 September 2020. Five cycles have subsequently been completed and a sixth cycle is currently in progress (commenced on Monday 8th February). A total of 86,541 tests were completed in 88 food production facilities across Cycles 1 - 4, with 526 cases detected. The
detection rate in facilities stood at 0.6%
across Cycles 1- 4, with Cycle 4 reporting the highest rate at 0.9%. The fifth cycle of serial testing began on Monday, 11th January 2021. At the end of the final week on 5 February, 21,500 swabs were taken and 444 positive cases were detected.
The Department continues to provide any assistance requested by the HSE to facilitate this testing programme. My Department has also been assisting HSE in evaluating the use of rapid antigen detections tests (RADT) for SARS-CoV-2 as a risk management tool in food businesses. This validation study has been done in tandem with the serial PCR testing organised by HSE - 4,900 people were tested by both RADT and PCR across 18 sites since the beginning of January 2021. While a detailed analysis of this data is currently being completed by HSE, the study would appear to support the use of RADT for this purpose.
Consequently, my Department is currently making arrangements to facilitate the roll-out of this testing so that any food business operators (FBOs) who wish to use RADT for risk management purposes can do so as soon as possible. This includes guidelines on the use of RADT for this purpose which my Department has agreed with the public health authorities and with the food industry, a process for the supply of RADT test-kits to FBOs and a means of providing some initial on-site training for FBOs who wish to use RADT.
Furthermore, as of 29th January, officials from my Department have completed 663 inspections on behalf of the HSA, including unannounced inspections, in DAFM-approved food premises, and these inspections are ongoing. This is in addition to the inspections carried out by the HSA itself, and in addition to the 49 premises where DAFM have a permanent presence.