Suspension of contact tracers in October was 'difficult call' but had to be done, says HSE chief

Contact tracers were facing 'unprecedented pressures', Paul Reid told the Government at the time.
Suspension of contact tracers in October was 'difficult call' but had to be done, says HSE chief

The plan to tackle the contact tracing backlog included deploying environmental health officers and military cadets, above, some of whom had begun contact tracing last March. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

HSE boss Paul Reid said a decision to suspend contact tracing for hundreds of Covid-19 close contacts had been a “difficult call” but one they “had to make”.

Mr Reid was responding to a request for a briefing from the office of the Taoiseach who said while they understood why the suspension was needed, they were likely to face criticism.

Micheál Martin’s chef de cabinet Deirdre Gillane replied, saying “the opposition won’t [understand]” and that as much detail as possible should be provided urgently.

In an email to Mr Reid, she wrote: “I can understand that it was difficult and why it had to be made but opposition won’t, so the more information Taoiseach has the better he will be able to explain it, as you know.

“Confidence in the test and trace system is important but I know it’s not the sole shield."  

The HSE was forced to suspend the contact tracing system midway through October amid a surge of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Around 2,000 people were asked to notify their own close contacts and tell them to arrange a test through their GP.

Internal records from the HSE detail how the suspension was considered to be a “one-off temporary measure” to ensure speedy testing for close contacts.

A note was prepared for health minister Stephen Donnelly after he personally contacted Paul Reid as well seeking an update.

The briefing note said: 

“The step presses the reset button and allows us to deal with the most recent cases first.” 

It said “unprecedented pressures” had been put on contacting tracing teams as more than 1,000 cases a day were reported, daily figures that have since been massively exceeded.

Asked whether it would happen again, the HSE told the minister that the call structure had been reconfigured to deal with up to 1,500 cases per day.

The briefing note said: 

“Next week we bring in the ability for a close contact to arrange their own test online — this will be a significant development. We also have more than 128 additional staff next week.” 

A detailed plan for how to tackle the backlog included 20 environmental health officers, a specialised team in Galway, and the use of 20 military cadets working on contact tracing calls.

An email said more resources would be needed so the backlog was “cleared rapidly and … the system has excess capacity to deal with any potential spikes”.

Internal documents also detail how close contacts were averaging 4.4 at the time with incorrect phone numbers adding to “turnaround” difficulties.

“Calls are becoming more complex as contact tracers are met with frustration from those receiving the close contact calls,” said one record.

Asked to comment on the documents, the HSE did not respond.

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