As Ireland enters its second lockdown in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus, pressure is mounting on political leaders over the country’s testing and tracing regime.
The entire country moved to the highest level of restrictions under the Government’s five-tiered framework for living with the virus for six weeks.
It emerged earlier this week that thousands of close contacts of positive coronavirus cases from last weekend would not be contacted by the HSE’s contact tracing team.
What happened was the contact tracing teams are being ramped up very quickly. In the last six weeks they are now making 400 per cent more calls than they did.
The system came under too much pressure and around 2,000 people, who tested positive, had to tell their close contacts to arrange their own test through their GP.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly only became aware of a breakdown in the contact tracing system when it was reported in the media.
Mr Donnelly said on Thursday that his department should have been told by the HSE.
“There are numerous ways in which Government could have been told. I am in contact with multiple people in the HSE on an ongoing basis and so are people in the department,” he told RTÉ Morning Ireland.
“This was an operational decision taken by the HSE on a Monday, but let’s be clear, people are incorrectly saying the contact tracing system has fallen down, it absolutely hasn’t.
“What happened was the contact tracing teams are being ramped up very quickly. In the last six weeks they are now making 400 per cent more calls than they did.”
The minister said he has been assured by the HSE the incident will not happen again.
He said the HSE has capacity in place to contact trace up to 1,500 positive cases per day.
The HSE has plans in place to double the number of contact tracers to 800 in four weeks.
Mr Donnelly has also written to the HSE for a full report on the contracts of contact tracers after People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said that workers are being offered zero-hour contracts.
Ireland has on Thursday become the first country in Europe to reimpose a nationwide lockdown in an effort to tackle the record number of cases over recent weeks.
The strict measures will remain in place until December 1st.
Mr Donnelly said: “This is a pre-emptive strike, it is being done in a calm and deliberate manner.”
New figures show that Cavan has a 14-day incidence rate of more than 1,000 per 100,000 people – the highest in the country.
Mr Donnelly said part of the reason for the growth in the border county is its location.
“I don’t want to pick out any particular organisation but we do have evidence from the testing teams that post-match celebrations, which shouldn’t have happened, in some cases did help spread the virus,” he added.
Under the new restrictions, people are urged to stay at home and exercise within a five-kilometre radius of their homes. Large parts of the economy have shut down as a result.
- Only schools, creches and essential retail remain open.
- No social or family gatherings are allowed in homes or gardens, but visits on compassionate grounds and for caring purposes can continue.
- People from one household can meet another household in an outdoors setting such as a park.
- A total of 25 people can attend weddings and funerals.
- Restaurants, cafes and bars are permitted to provide takeaway or delivery services only. They are no longer allowed to provide outdoor dining.
- Hairdressers, barbers, salons, and gyms are not allowed to operate.
- Elite sports training and senior inter-county Gaelic games can continue.
The Garda has introduced a range of measures including checkpoints and high-visibility patrols to coincide with the imposition of level-five measures.
There will be over 2,500 gardaí on duty at any one time to ensure compliance with the public health guidelines.
New penalties will be introduced for breaching the measures. These include fines of up to €1,000 and/or up to one month in prison for someone who hosts a party.
People attending a house party or attempting to attend one could also face fines of up to €1,000 and/or one month in prison.
On-the-spot fines of up to €500 could be imposed if people do not wear a mask, among other offences.
The legislation does not give gardaí the power to enter a home without a warrant, but they could stand at the entrance and look for the occupier’s name.
They could also turn someone around if they believe they are attending an event.
The new laws are expected to come into effect within days.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee said gardaí will only use the new powers as a last resort.