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Masks for healthcare workers should have been mandatory at start – nursing union

A committee heard Ireland has one of the highest reported infection rates of Covid-19 among healthcare workers in the world.

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Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation director of Industrial relations Phil Ni Sheaghdha (Niall Carson/PA)

Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation director of Industrial relations Phil Ni Sheaghdha (Niall Carson/PA)

Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation director of Industrial relations Phil Ni Sheaghdha (Niall Carson/PA)

Masks should have been made mandatory for healthcare workers from the start of the pandemic, an Oireachtas committee on the Government’s response to Covid-19 has heard.

Phil Ni Sheaghdha, head of the Irish Nursing and Midwives Organisation (INMO), said she had to lobby hard to get masks made mandatory for healthcare workers.

Ms Ni Sheaghdha said that up until April 22, face masks were not recommended for all healthcare workers.

She said: “We had to lobby and cajole and I had to write six letters to the Health Service Executive (HSE) in all, so that face masks would be made mandatory for healthcare workers.”

The Covid-19 response committee heard Ireland has one of the highest reported infection rates of Covid-19 among healthcare workers in the world.

“We had a situation where one of our members was sent home for wearing a face mask, she had been advised that it was against HSE policy – she was actually sent home.

We believe that face masks should have been mandatory from the very beginning in every single healthcare setting, because our testing and tracing was not, and is not, sophisticated enough to determine who is and who isn't infectedPhil Ni Sheaghdha, INMO

“That became an industrial relations matter that we eventually resolved.”

She said after the HSE made face masks mandatory for healthcare workers on April 22, there was a “dramatic” drop in the number of infections of healthcare workers.

“We believe that face masks should have been mandatory from the very beginning in every single healthcare setting, because our testing and tracing was not, and is not, sophisticated enough to determine who is and who isn’t infected.

“We also have learned that asymptomatic people can still be infectious, and waiting for someone to develop a temperature before you start wearing PPE was a mistake.

“That is particularly relevant in the community sector.”

Another three people have died with Covid-19, the National Public Health Emergency Team said on Tuesday evening, bringing the overall toll to 1,720.

And an extra 10 cases of the illness were confirmed, bringing the cumulative tally to 25,391.

The committee also heard healthcare workers had to take annual leave or leave their children with relatives for several weeks, as the state failed to provide healthcare after facilities were shut in March.

Ms Ni Sheaghdha said a survey of members found the majority relied on their partner taking annual leave or having a relative come to live in their home.

She said: “Some actually moved their children to a relative’s home and then didn’t see their children for eight weeks.

“The sacrifices they made in coming to work was extraordinary, I don’t think it can be matched by any public sector representative in the midst of this Covid-19 crisis.”

She said nurses have already used up most of their annual leave, but the health service is set to get busier.

She said trolley figures are already starting to increase again, with 130 people on trolleys on Tuesday.

“We now have two health services – one for Covid-19, and non Covid-19.

“The pressure on the health service is going to increase dramatically.”

Ms Ni Sheaghdha said nurses who have had to pay for childcare from their own pocket should be refunded.

“The actions that we believe are now required are that the cost to nurses, midwives, of attending work should be repaid to them, and that that preferential treatment be afforded to them when childcare facilities reopen.”

Siptu’s health divisional organiser, Paul Bell, told the committee the Government focused on “rigid options only” when it came to childcare for frontline workers.

Mr Bell said: “We are still not satisfied that proper consultation has taken place between the authorities and the frontline workers who are reliant on the state for their childcare requirements.

“Their words are that they have been abandoned, been applauded, because it is now at their cost that they are attending work.

“Ultimately, this seriously flawed and inflexible approach resulted in the depletion of essential healthcare workers from the front line of the fight against Covid-19, and a financial loss for many of them,” he said.

“We believe these flaws must be addressed and remedied as a matter of priority in advance of any potential second wave.”

PA