Taoiseach Micheál Martin has moved to play down reports of conflict between the Government and the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, over the provision of subsidised antigen tests to the general public.
Mr Martin said that Dr Holohan supported the use of antigen testing in targeted areas but that he was concerned that there should be clear communication about how and when they should be used.
This was in cases where people were not displaying symptoms of Covid-19, he said.
“The CMO’s main concern is that there needs to be very clear communication around the proper use of antigen testing, you should use it when you don’t have symptoms. If you are symptomatic and you have symptoms, go and get a PCR test immediately,” he said.
The Taoiseach’s comments came as 5,959 new cases were reported by the Department of Health on Saturday with 640 patients in hospital with the virus and 121 in intensive care as of 8am that morning.
Earlier, it emerged that Dr Holohan had written to the Government, urging it not to provide subsidised antigen tests after the Cabinet had decided to proceed with the plan.
Dr Holohan’s letter to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was sent after a decision at Monday night’s Cabinet sub-committee meeting – at which he was present – to make the provision of subsidised antigen tests a key element of the State’s response to the fourth wave of Covid.
Dr Holohan has long been a critic of antigen tests, warning repeatedly of the danger they could be misused and give people false security. He cited research which he said showed the danger of people using the tests incorrectly and this risked promoting infection rather than reducing case numbers.
Antigen testing role
But speaking on Saturday afternoon at Cork Airport, where he officially opened the newly refurbished runway, Mr Martin sought to play down any disagreement between Dr Holohan and the Government, pointing to the CMO’s support for the use of antigen testing in specific settings.
“We should acknowledge that the use of antigen testing has expanded significantly over the last number of months, the HSE has sent out free antigen tests in the context of close contacts and it’s being used for serial testing in meat plants, in nursing homes and in third level colleges.”
Mr Martin said that he had spoken to Dr Holohan on Saturday morning and Dr Holohan recognised there that there is a role for antigen testing but was concerned that research suggests people are using antigen tests in the wrong situations when they are already Covid symptomatic.
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“[Dr Holohan] believes there is a role for antigen testing … he has concerns from the surveys of research that have been undertaken that a very high number of people are using antigen testing at the wrong time, they are using antigen testing when they are symptomatic.”
Asked for clarification on whether the latest new cases figure included any significant number backlogged from previous days, the department said it did not.
Mr Martin also said the Government will wait on making any decision on cutting the Pandemic Unemployment Payment scheme until it is discussed at a Cabinet subcommittee meeting on Monday.
Elsewhere on Saturday, demonstrations against Covid-19 measures took place in different cities across Europe. Hundreds of people gathered in Belfast city centre on Saturday to reject the planned introduction of Covid-19 certification in Northern Ireland.
In the Netherlands, two people were being treated in hospital in the Dutch city of Rotterdam on Saturday after they were seriously injured when police fired shots during a violent protest against Covid-19 measures, authorities said.
Vienna saw tens of thousands many of them far-right supporters, protested in Vienna on Saturday against coronavirus restrictions a day after Austria’s government announced a new lockdown and said vaccines would be made compulsory next year.
Earlier, Dr Cillian de Gascun has said that the Government should subsidise antigen tests to ensure they are accessible to people who may struggle with the reoccurring cost of testing family members.
The director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory said if tests were being used as part of the State’s collective approach to the pandemic, they should be made easily available.
“If we’re expecting people to do them, they’re not they’re not cheap, and certainly, there will be a large number of families and large number of individuals that will struggle with that that recurring cost of between €4-€7 per test,” Dr de Gascun told RTÉ’s Saturday with Justin McCarthy Show.
“So absolutely, if we’re if we’re asking people to take these on as part of our collective approach to the pandemic, then to my mind, it would make sense to try and subsidize that.”
Dr de Gascun told RTÉ he had not spoken with Dr Holohan about these comments but that antigen tests could have a benefit at a population level. However, he expressed concern about the “sustainability” of people remembering to take tests 2-3 times a week and underlined the importance of educating people properly on how to do antigen testing.
Earlier, Dr De Gascun said he expected people who received the one-shot Janssen vaccine would get the booster “as soon as logistics can be scaled up”.
He expressed the hope that the booster would provide long-term immunity for people, noting that the third dose of other non-Covid vaccines often provided more “durability”.
“We realise now that the vaccine may be a three dose primary course,” he said. “And that’s not unusual. We see that vaccinology all the time. For example, the hepatitis B vaccine requires three doses and so we’re hopeful now that the booster dose will complete that primary course and increase levels of protection.”
Despite the importance of the booster rollout in this country, Ireland must not lose sight of the global picture when it comes to bringing the virus under control, he added.
“Administering lots more vaccines in a small number of wealthy countries isn’t doing anything at a global level. We need to get vaccines rolled out across the world for all of our sakes.”
Dr De Gascun described the rise in hospitalisations and case numbers as “very serious” and encouraged people to “redouble their efforts” in cutting down their social contacts over the coming weeks. At present, people have on average 6-7 close contacts which is “not sustainable”, he said, adding that the reimposition of further restrictions could not be ruled out.
The virus currently spreading in Ireland is still the Delta variant and not the Delta plus variant – the mutated form of the original Delta variant which has emerged in the UK, he said. Just 2 per cent of cases in Ireland have been designated Delta plus, he added.