Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said he wants to see antigen tests “used more in society” as the HSE launched pilot projects in the childcare sector.
In a first for young children’s care, staff in early learning and childcare facilities across the East, North-East and West have volunteered to trial antigen testing.
Five further education settings will also run trials in Dublin, Mayo, Galway and Cavan. This follows a scheme called UniCov launched in June at four universities, including University College Cork.
Mr Donnelly said: “I want to see these tests used more in society as an additional tool in our fight against Covid-19. I’m pleased to see further sectors of our society engage in the antigen testing process. We’ve already had successful use of these tests in healthcare settings and in agriculture and food production.”
The HSE is working with the Department of Children and the Department of Further and Higher Education on the pilot.
Children's Minister Roderic O’Gorman said: “The early learning and childcare sector is essential for the wellbeing of children and their families, and the staff in the sector have shown great commitment to the children in their care over the course of the pandemic.”
He welcomed the addition of the childcare sector to the pilot programme.
“The continued safe operation of early learning and childcare services is a priority of all involved in the sector, and this pilot will provide learning to the HSE to manage the Covid risk in our crèches and pre-schools,“ Mr O’ Gorman said.
Staff and students at further learning and higher education sites in Galway, Mayo, Cavan and Dublin will also be part of the project.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris said: “We have a pilot under way in four higher education settings already and today’s announcement will see the HSE pilot commence in five further education settings.”
Mr Harris described antigen testing as “an additional weapon in our fight against Covid-19”, which does not replace public health advice.
The HSE continues to rely on PCR testing to find cases of the virus, but this pilot programme could lead to wider use of antigen testing in education settings, HSE lead on testing and tracing Niamh O’Beirne said.
She said: “By undertaking this pilot process in a number of higher education and childcare facilities we want to better understand how to utilise antigen testing to identify cases early and so help prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
Ms O’ Beirne said they would be looking for any practical challenges and how the users interact with the tests.
She said: “We’ll be in a position to develop workable strategies for further deployment, should that be considered appropriate."
Clinical lead for the Contact Management Programme Dr Greg Martin said there were “known limitations” to antigen testing, but this project will help them understand how to “safely and effectively use this tool”.