More than 10,000 people have called the SouthDoc out-of-hours GP service looking for a PCR test in the last month.
Until Friday, anyone who suspected they had Covid-19 needed a PCR test to confirm this. However, as the online booking system buckled under spiralling numbers, many people turned instead to GPs, who could access a separate booking system.
SouthDoc medical director Dr Gary Stack said the collapse of the system, which led to long delays for appointments, meant everyone's time was wasted.
“We were doing the vast majority of the referrals during the Christmas holiday period, but what I would question is, referrals for what? What was the relevance for people finding out a week later or getting an appointment a week later.
Between December 14 and December 21, SouthDoc staff took just 132 calls from people in need of a PCR test across Cork and Kerry.
This shot up to 3,022 the next week, between December 21 and 28 when Omicron began to surge, and in the week immediately after Christmas reached 5,445 such phone calls. This week, up to Wednesday, there had been 1,480 calls already.
“It affected our work, it affected our ability to answer calls from patients who needed medical help,” Dr Stack said.
“Our calls were up about 30%. We would already be under pressure at Christmas because you can’t suddenly double your staff, double your nurses and your call-takers just for the 10 days of Christmas.”
He welcomed the new emphasis on antigen testing, saying this was welcome until PCR testing can be offered on the same day people apply with a quick results turnaround.
He is hopeful the new rules will help health authorities get a more accurate view of how many cases there are.
“There shouldn’t be a delay if we are trying to provide a PCR service, that should be same day or next day and preferably by the patient booking it themselves,” he said.
Under the latest rules, asymptomatic close contacts can use repeated antigen tests over a seven-day period to check their Covid status. A positive result can now be entered on the HSE portal directly.
In the same way, anyone aged between four and 39 with symptoms of Covid-19, should also use repeated antigen tests to check if they are infected and register this result.
However, anyone needing a Covid-19 recovery certificate for work or travel purposes currently still needs a PCR result or professionally-administered antigen test result, the HSE’s head of testing and tracing Damien McCallion has said.