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Revealed: Only 60 people have completed training to work with contact tracing across NI

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The contract tracing app

The contract tracing app

PA

The contract tracing app

Only 60 people have been trained to work in contact tracing in Northern Ireland - one month after the head of the Public Health Agency said 500 people were being trained to work in the vital NHS Covid-19 scheme.

Health chiefs have revealed that while they have recruited 800 volunteers to take part in efforts to reduce the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus, only 60 have completed the day and a half training course so far.

A further 24 people are taking part in training this week, a spokesman for the Public Health Agency (PHA) said.

Olive Macleod, who was appointed interim chief executive of the PHA in March this year, appeared in front of Stormont's health committee on April 16 and said 500 staff had been recruited and were being trained in contact tracing.

However, when she was giving further evidence to the health committee last week, Ms Macleod said this was not the case.

"I spoke out of turn, that is incorrect," she said.

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QUB virologist Dr Connor Bamford

QUB virologist Dr Connor Bamford

QUB virologist Dr Connor Bamford

Asked to provide clarity on the current situation, a PHA spokesman said: "Sixty people have been trained and they are covering shifts. This includes some environmental health officers.

"We have over 800 people on our confirmed volunteer list. The training of staff volunteers remains ongoing so that the number of individuals deployed can be scaled up and down at short notice in line with the demand generated through the programme when it transitions from the current pilot."

Experts have stressed that a comprehensive testing and contact tracing programme will allow the draconian lockdown measures to be lifted across Northern Ireland.

In particular, it will prove crucial to the 80,000 people who are currently shielding from the virus, and are facing the possibility that the initial 12-week shielding period will be extended further.

The aim of testing and contact tracing is to identify any outbreaks and enable earlier isolation of anyone infected with the virus, which in turn, will help to reduce the spread of the virus.

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Olive Macleod of the PHA

Olive Macleod of the PHA

Olive Macleod of the PHA

It will also alert those who are shielding to the presence of the virus in their community, meaning that they could take additional precautions to keep themselves safe.

This may include removing children from school or sending them to live elsewhere for the duration of an outbreak so they can continue to go to school when a parent is considered high risk.

Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist from Queen's University, Belfast, said contact tracing and testing will prove crucial in the fight against coronavirus.

However, he added: "Contact tracing isn't an easy job and I'm not sure even 500 people will be enough."

Responding to the fact that 60 people have so far completed training, Stormont health committee member and Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan said: "It's a welcome first step, but seems to fall well short of what the chief medical officers and the chief executive of the PHA promised in their separate evidence to the committee over the last few weeks.

"It would certainly have to be ramped up significantly in line with World Health Organisation criteria if there is going to be any easing of the restrictions.

"The jurisdictions that have been most successful in combating the virus have had rigorous testing, tracing and isolation.

"That's what we have to aim for here, and the sooner the better."

A PHA spokesman said: "The PHA's ongoing Covid-19 contact tracing pilot commenced on April 27 and aims to help examine how Northern Ireland can limit the impact of a second wave of the disease.

"The aim of contact tracing is to identify clusters of infection and prevent further spread of Covid-19. The contact tracing in the pilot programme will focus on priority groups within the population where clusters of infection may be presenting. This involves new ways of working so there is a lot still that we need to learn about the process."

Belfast Telegraph