THE country’s swine flu contingency plan cannot be fully implemented because there are no emergency on-call specialists to respond to an outbreak.
An internal Department of Health document warned of the risk posed to the public because there is “no out-of-hours cover arrangements in the event of an infectious disease outbreak”.
The warning was registered in 2008 but the Department of Health yesterday confirmed the situation has not changed.
A dispute with the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) means there is no weekend or evening cover of specialist public health doctors who are essential to identify, assess and monitor cases of the virus should they occur here.
So far there are no confirmed cases of swine flu in Ireland, with at least four test samples returning negative results. At a press conference in Government buildings yesterday evening, Department of Health officials would not confirm how many tests have been carried out or samples returned, insisting they will not be keeping a running tally of suspected cases.
The Government warned that all unnecessary travel to affected areas should be avoided. Airports and ports here will feature posters warning people of the risks of swine flu if they are departing to or returning from affected countries, as of this morning.
Dr Tony Holohan, chief medical officer at the department said a National Pandemic Influenza Plan has been in place since 2007 and is ready to put into action.
But the department’s risk register obtained under the Freedom of Information warns of a “failure to respond to an infectious disease outbreak” because there is “no out-of-hours service available in the event of an infectious disease outbreak”.
This would result in the department being “unable to fully implement the National Pandemic Influenza Plan”, it said.
It identifies the lack of out-of-hours cover as posing a medium risk but says the possible impact could be “extremely detrimental”.
It warns that the department risks a “failure to comply with international commitments, including international health regulations”. It also notes that the lack of out-of-hours cover arrangements could lead to “adverse publicity for the department and the Government”.
The IMO said last night the staff structures are not in place to deliver the contingency plan.
“This does put the public at risk. It is certainly not satisfactory that there is no formal arrangement for an out-of-hours emergency response,” said IMO director of industrial relations Dr Finbarr Murphy.
The dispute over out-of-hours cover is due to be heard in the Labour Relations Court next Tuesday.
The IMO said it has not received any correspondence from the HSE on the issue since the swine flu threat emerged last Friday.
The HSE said all relevant parties are involved in discussions on how to respond to swine flu, but could not confirm if this included the IMO.
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