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Holohan downplays ‘tensions’ between the HSE and NPHET over testing

Newly-published letters reveal the HSE’s concern over decisions taken in April by the National Public Health and Emergency Team on testing targets.

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Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan (Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan (Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan (Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland)

The chief medical officer has downplayed the significance of letters exposing tensions between the HSE and Health Department over testing.

The letters revealed HSE concerns over decisions taken by the National Public Health and Emergency Team (NPHET), in particular an announcement setting a new target of 100,000 tests a week.

Dr Tony Holohan, who made the test announcement in April, was pressed on the correspondence at Thursday’s daily NPHET briefing.

He stressed that the letters were a month old and insisted the HSE and NPHET were fully aligned on Ireland’s Covid-19 testing strategy and associated targets.

He put the frustrations raised in the HSE letters down to “communications challenges” in the process.

Dr Holohan also said some tensions should be expected in a high-paced and pressurised situation involving get to grips with an unfolding health emergency.

“If I told there was no tension then, in my view, we wouldn’t be pushing ourselves hard enough to try to do the job we are trying to do,” he said.

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Dr Colm Henry said the HSE and NPHET were united on the testing strategy (Photocall Ireland/PA)

Dr Colm Henry said the HSE and NPHET were united on the testing strategy (Photocall Ireland/PA)

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Dr Colm Henry said the HSE and NPHET were united on the testing strategy (Photocall Ireland/PA)

Dr Colm Henry, the HSE’s chief clinical officer, also sought to present a united front with NPHET.

Appearing at the daily briefing alongside Dr Holohan, Dr Henry said everyone involved in the process now “completely agreed” with the testing strategy.

“Of course there has been frustrations but I can assure you everyone is working in a completely united front,” he said.

Days after Dr Holohan announced that Covid-19 testing would be ramped up to 100,000 a week, HSE boss Paul Reid wrote to the Department of Health General Secretary Jim Breslin on April 17 stating he was “taken by surprise” at the move.

He wrote that it was “at odds” with the plans that the HSE had been engaging in Government with.

The public announcement came just days before Mr Reid was due to update the Cabinet on the HSE’s testing and tracing capacity.

Mr Reid wrote that he was “extremely disappointed” that these understandings “appear not to have been respected”.

He continued in the letter: “I’m at a loss as to why this direction from the NPHET to the HSE was given and publicly communicated without completing the jointly agreed processes and without regard to appropriate governance.”

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Paul Reid expressed surprise and disappointment at NPHET’s public announcement of a 100,000 a week test target (Photocall Ireland/PA)

Paul Reid expressed surprise and disappointment at NPHET’s public announcement of a 100,000 a week test target (Photocall Ireland/PA)

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Paul Reid expressed surprise and disappointment at NPHET’s public announcement of a 100,000 a week test target (Photocall Ireland/PA)

Mr Reid said the issues highlight the need for “far greater cooperation and collaboration” on decisions from the NPHET.

On April 20, HSE chair Ciaran Devane wrote to Minister for Health Simon Harris to complain that NPHET had “pre-empted” the process which had been agreed to develop the testing plan.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said the “explosive” correspondence showed “serious failings” of governance and accountability, and raised questions about how the Covid-19 testing targets were arrived at.

The letters emerged on the same day the HSE pledged to reduce its Covid-19 testing and contact tracing process down to a three-day turnaround.

The target is set to be introduced next week, when the Government is expected to begin the first phase of relaxing Covid-19 restrictions.

Speaking at a briefing at University College Dublin on Thursday morning, Mr Reid said that HSE has had “significant” challenges in the testing process, including issues around supplies of swabs and PPE.

Around 270,000 coronavirus tests have been carried out across Ireland, equating to about 5% of the population.

“We’ve consistently remained in the top tier of European countries in terms of the number of tests completed,” Mr Reid added.

“We faced significant backlogs which resulted in a poor experience for a lot of people.

“We have been rightly judged in that and held to account.”

As part of the HSE’s new road map, a number of key milestones have been factored in as part of its plan to build on capacity and approve turnaround times.

He said around 90% of positive cases will be completed from end-to-end in three days.

Mr Reid explained that the other 10% are complex cases which include difficult contact tracing.

Dr Holohan has said that turnaround times for testing and tracing coronavirus in Ireland are not set to delay the lockdown exit plan.

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