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HSE suspends practice of telling employer test results before employees

The HSE said it would seek guidance on the issue from the Data Protection Commissioner.

The HSE has suspended the practice of informing employers of coronavirus test results before the employees who were tested.

The move comes after complaints were received by the Data Protection Commission (DPC), which subsequently raised concern about the incidences.

Earlier on Tuesday, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said informing employers before their staff was a “breach of confidentiality”.

It is understood the incidences relate to widespread screening of large workforces, including meat plants, with public health officials alerting employers in the first instance in an effort to trigger prompt infection control steps.

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Dr Tony Holohan told the Covid-19 committee that the practice represented a breach of confidentiality (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Dr Tony Holohan told the Covid-19 committee that the practice represented a breach of confidentiality (Oireachtas TV/PA)

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Dr Tony Holohan told the Covid-19 committee that the practice represented a breach of confidentiality (Oireachtas TV/PA)

In a statement on Tuesday, the HSE said it was aware of the report about complaints being received by the DPC.

“The HSE recognises that in normal circumstances employees should receive their test results prior to their employer receiving them,” the statement added.

“It is only in the most exceptional circumstances that HSE would consider informing an employer of an employee’s test result prior to informing the employee.

“This course of action would only be considered where it was considered essential for the public health good in all the circumstances. This also would be a decision made by Public Health if it was considered in the best interest of the employee or a group of employees at the time, usually in the context of investigation of an outbreak and limiting onward transmission of infection.

“In such exceptional circumstances, Public Health would take into account the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981.”

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HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said there are exceptional circumstances were an employer could be informed first (Photocall Ireland/PA.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said there are exceptional circumstances were an employer could be informed first (Photocall Ireland/PA.

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HSE chief executive Paul Reid has said there are exceptional circumstances were an employer could be informed first (Photocall Ireland/PA.

The HSE stressed that employees who do test positive will receive a phone call detailing what they need to do in relation to self care and contract tracing.

“This is good public health practice,” said the statement.

“In view of the concerns raised by some employees in relation to this issue, the HSE will reconsider the use of exceptions and has suspended the practice while we seek guidance from the Data Protection Commissioner.”

Giving evidence to the Covid-19 committee earlier on Tuesday, Dr Holohan said: “We have had some reports of employers receiving results in respect of individual patients – that’s a breach of confidentiality. Full stop.”

HSE CEO Paul Reid told the same committee there were exceptional cases where public health officials would be required to inform an employer in the best interests of managing infection risk.

Later, the HSE’s chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry said confidentiality was a “very important principle in medical practice”.

“But it’s not immutable,” he told the daily Covid-19 media briefing.

“And there are certain exceptional circumstances that doctors will breach confidentiality if there are exceptional circumstances.”

PA