Some of the 5,100 essential healthcare workers who are currently isolating because they are Covid-19 close contacts will be allowed to return to work under a new derogation.
However, under the exemption issued by the HSE, workers who are asymptomatic close contacts will have to continue isolating outside of work hours.
Before staff return to work, “certain criteria” will have to be met including a checklist process which would first aim to backfill the roles with staff from elsewhere in the health service. If this is not possible, management will engage with the staff member to seek their agreement to return to work before their quarantine is over.
This is not the first time such a derogation has been issued during the pandemic — a similar order was passed by HSE management last November during the third wave.
At present, anyone living in a house with a confirmed Covid case is expected to isolate at home and take three antigen tests on the first, third, and fifth days of isolation. They are free to move about again after the third negative test.
More than 5,100 HSE staff are currently absent from work after either testing positive for the virus or being a close contact.
The HSE guidance says the worker in question must agree to the derogation and that it may only apply to an asymptomatic worker who has also returned at least one negative test, either PCR or antigen.
The derogation can not be sought for an unvaccinated worker or one who is a close contact of the new Omicron variant. Anyone working under the derogation is to be “actively monitored” while at work. It must end if they become symptomatic.
A spokesperson for the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said the union is “in talks” with the HSE about the derogation.
A Siptu spokesperson said the memos represent the “best balance achievable” between the blanket derogation the HSE had initially sought and one which allows isolating workers to choose “without duress” whether or not to co-operate.
One healthcare union source said: “To be honest, once Paul Reid said they would seek a derogation, it was going to happen. Then, the choice was whether or not to make it a public spat, or to take the more pragmatic approach."
Meanwhile, the Department of Education has introduced emergency measures aimed at improving cover for teachers who are sick or isolating. This includes a temporary, emergency substitution arrangement and increasing the involvement of student and retired teachers.
The voluntary emergency substitution arrangements allow teachers already working in schools to provide additional sub cover on top of the maximum number of 22 hours teaching per week.
Up to a maximum of 35 additional hours can be provided between now and the end of February. Teachers will be paid if they choose to take part.
Both the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland welcomed the emergency measures but were highly critical of the lower pay rates that will apply for teachers who qualified after 2011.