The Government is likely to proceed with subsidising antigen tests notwithstanding the strong reservations of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to widespread use of the rapid test for coronavirus.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said on Sunday that he “strongly suspects” the Cabinet will decide at its meeting on Tuesday to make the test more affordable to people.
“Are we going to use it more widely? Of course we will. Are we going to make it more affordable, I strongly suspect we will,” he told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics.
It is likely that the move will lead to charges per antigen test as low as €1 to €2, with the kits being widely available in pharmacies and supermarkets.
Mr Coveney’s comments come as 4,181 new cases of Covid-19were reported on Sunday afternoon. The number of patients being treated in hospital was 668 as of 8am on Sunday, it said, with 125 in ICU.
Mr Coveney also told the programme that future lockdowns were not inevitable, but the Government would have to take cognisance of future health advice.
The chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and Nphet’s head of forecasting Professor Philip Nolan have both expressed doubts over subsidising antigen testing. They have expressed concerns the tests will not be used properly by people, who will get false reassurances over their Covid status.
On Saturday, Prof Nolan said he and Dr Holohan were aligned in their views and said the important thing was that the right test was used at the right time.
In a separate interview with This Week on RTÉ, Prof Nolan said: “Our own data shows us that antigen tests are not being used well. So for instance, of people who use an antigen test in the past week or so, those who were symptomatic on a positive antigen test, less than a third went on to get the confirmatory PCR tests.
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“We have legitimate concerns that we know the tests are not being used well. If you are an asymptomatic close contact to use the test, but if you are involved in higher risk activities not to use these tests if you have symptoms suggesting you have Covid-19. If you have symptoms you need a PCR test.”
Mr Coveney defended the Government’s policies on antigen testing and denied its introduction had been delayed for months. He said it had been used regularly in settings such as schools, colleges and meat factories.
Asked if a subsidy would be introduced by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, he said: “If he thinks it is beneficial he will bring (a memo) to Cabinet.
“I can certainly see the arguments that if you don’t want antigen testing to be cost prohibitive for people and if it makes sense to have antigen testing we should be encouraging that.
“But we have to be careful that people don’t replace PCR testing with antigen testing in their own minds. That could be counterproductive.”
Speaking on the same programme Louise O’Reilly of Sinn Féin said the Government was delaying and dithering in its response to the latest wave.
“People are away ahead of the Government on antigen testing,” she said.
“Not too long ago the Government was against antigen testing. They have now come around to what Sinn Féin and other parties have been calling for,” she said.
Róisín Shortall, co-leader of the Social Democrats, said that the Government had been very slow in responding to antigen, to ventilation advice and to respond to the inadequate capacity for PCR testing in the past week which was unacceptable, she said.
Peadar Tóibín of Aontú pointed out that the State had conducted 500,000 antigen tests since summer whereas Denmark was conducting 500,000 per day and had a third of the rate of Ireland. Mr Coveney retorted that new restrictions were being introduced in Denmark.
He denied claims by the Opposition representatives that the Government messaging lacked consistency. Mr Coveney also said the Cabinet sub-committee on economics, which meets tomorrow, will also discuss the issue of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment. The rate was reduced this month just as the new upsurge in cases began to accelerate. Mr Coveney did not say the reduction would be revisited but did say it would be one of the matters for discussions.
In his interview, Professor Nolan said that the current modelling showed that if nothing was done, the State would be in “very significant difficulty in the course of December”.
However, he said that there was a positive message that if people were to make “relatively minor adjustments in their level of social contacts” the virus could be brought under control.
He added the reproduction rate or “R” rate was somewhere between 1.2 to 1.3 that number needed to be reduced to below 1.
“What that means in practical terms is if we reduce our level of social contacts by about 30 per cent… we will suppress the virus again.”