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 Header Item Covid-19 Tests (Continued)
 Header Item Health Services

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 6

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  6 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan: Information on Pádraig O'Sullivan Zoom on Pádraig O'Sullivan] More than 200,000 people in the city were tested out of a population of 500,000. Of those 200,000 rapid tests conducted, some 4,000 people were found to be asymptomatic and carrying the virus unbeknownst to themselves. The rapid tests rolled out in Liverpool daily enabled those people to be identified and to isolate themselves.

I reiterate that the intention is not to use antigen testing to replace the system we have. As the Minister of State said, PCR testing is the gold standard. I believe there is a place for rapid testing as well, however. The HSE could publish guidelines for this type of rapid testing and then allow companies to provide this type of test to people, because there is a demand for them. This type of testing is already being undertaken all around us, such as in major pharmaceutical companies and other multinationals, for example, and it is about time that we moved with this trend.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It is interesting that we are having this conversation today, because only last week I met Paul Reid and Dr. Colm Henry regarding this matter. The week before, the Minister of Health and I also had a long conversation on this issue. Rapid antigen testing is a complementary tool, and as the vaccination programme is being rolled out it is imperative that we have backup alternatives available as we reopen society. It would give people the hope that Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan spoke about.

When reopening society, we must also consider locations such as student campuses. We must have an option we can use in those contexts and that is where rapid antigen testing can have a role. I compliment the Minister on the appointment of Professor Mark Ferguson, who has been tasked with reviewing this matter. One aspect of the roll-out of the vaccination programme is relevant to this context, namely, how the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has responded with its re-examination of those groupings assigned priority. Such a reassessment is exactly what is happening with rapid antigen testing.

The question now is how we can best use the tools available to us to ensure we can continue to function as a society when the vaccination process starts. We should not only give hope when we start to open up, but also an assurance that we will be able to respond to any situation which might develop, do the required tests and lockdown affected sectors. One sector that comes to mind where that could be done is in meat plants. The same kind of rapid antigen testing could be done in small communities where one or two cases might pop up. A review of the roll-out of rapid antigen testing is therefore at the forefront of the Minister's ambition in this context as well.

Health Services

Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley I welcome the opportunity to address this issue with the Minister of State. It has been the case for many years in Laois-Offaly that there have been long waiting lists for services such as child psychology, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. However, the situation is now truly awful and this is not all due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Action is needed now to deal with the backlog of children in these two counties who have been waiting for several years to access these services. It is a scandal that 4,771 children are waiting for services in these three specialties. What is worse is that some of those children, 2,650 of them to be accurate, have been waiting for more than one year to be given an appointment for assessment or appropriate therapy. The damage being done to children who may have autism spectrum disorder, ASD, or some other condition is immeasurable. The Minister of State understands that.

Some 2,014 children are on the waiting list for occupational therapy, with 1,181 of those children waiting for more than 12 months. In the area of child psychology, 1,304 children are on the waiting list, 801 of whom have been waiting for more than a year. There are 1,453 children in the queue for speech and language services, with 568 of those children waiting for longer than 12 months. These are the latest figures I obtained through parliamentary questions and they are shocking. Does the Government understand this situation is storing up massive problems for the future? I say this sincerely to the Minister of State. If appropriate interventions and services are not provided at an early stage in a child's development, more difficulties and more complex issues will arise in adulthood. I am not an expert in these areas, but all those who are experts have told me that over the years.

Aside from the difficulties being caused to children, these waiting lists are also causing great stress and many problems for parents and families. They have been watching their children regressing and have then had to deal with the resultant behavioural issues and cope with all that entails. Teachers are trying to deal and cope with challenges and problems being caused in school classrooms. The community and society in general will also face issues in this regard in future. It is important therefore that we try to rectify this situation. The Covid-19 pandemic does not explain away the existing backlog and the poor state of child services in Laois-Offaly. This area appears to have been a blackspot in this regard for many years. The provision of these services in Laois-Offaly has been poor for as long as I have been around. I was raising this issue some 20 years ago as a county councillor, but these services are in crisis now.

Action is needed. I have raised this situation year after year, and sometimes several times each year. I have raised it with the management of the HSE and with successive Ministers. The real issue here concerns the provision of services where they are needed, which is on the front line. It is crucially important that these services are in place. We should not look at the situation from a financial perspective, but there will be major economic consequences down the line. The human aspect, however, is the most important. I refer to the effects on the children themselves and the problems we are storing up for those children in adulthood, as well as the effects on their families, in classrooms and on the wider community. I ask the Minister of State to address this issue.

Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue for discussion. I think this is the third time I have come into the House to answer a Topical Issue matter regarding the Laois-Offaly area. I am thankful that Deputies Fleming and Cowen do not seek responses from me as well, or I would be in here every couple of weeks answering these questions.

The Government does understand this situation. I know all too well the difficulties families are facing in securing access to some disability services. That is why in preparation for tonight's answer I have tried to get to the exact root of the issue raised by Deputy Stanley. This has been a priority issue for me since being appointed in July and many parents have contacted my office to voice their concerns, which are particularly acute during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Turning to the situation in Laois-Offaly specifically, this is an area of which I was already aware. I have discussed this matter with the HSE previously, as there appear to be several challenges in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, and these most certainly must be addressed. Deputy Stanley is correct concerning early intervention being key. I have been told by the HSE that the lengthy waiting times for children to access Laois-Offaly disability services are primarily due to two issues which the HSE is struggling with and which we must rectify.

The first of these is the high volume of referrals to the services. I have been told by the HSE that local disability services are constantly striving to maximise resources and ensure that the maximum quantity of services is being provided to children. The HSE's Midlands Louth Meath CHO disability services are also facing and tackling several recruitment issues, which I hope will make a big difference to the waiting times that families are experiencing. The aim is to recruit staff to fill all vacant psychology posts as soon as possible, but the recruitment of staff grade clinical psychologists is dependent on the number of clinical psychologists graduating this year.

There are two vacant occupational therapy posts in Laois-Offaly children's disability services and every effort is being made by the local HSE to fill these posts as quickly as possible. Two speech and language therapy posts are vacant in Laois as a consequence of maternity leave, with one person due to return this month. In addition, there is one permanent vacancy and this post is due to be filled next month. In more positive news, the Deputy will be glad to hear that three posts which had been vacant were filled within the past month. As the Deputy may be aware, I secured funding for an additional 100 new therapy posts in the recent budget and I hope to see some of these posts allocated to the Laois-Offaly area in due course.

It is also important to inform Deputy Stanley that I met with CORU last week, which is the organisation responsible for recognising and validating the qualifications of those people who may have returned from overseas and granting them a place on the professional registers. I am working with CORU to ensure that task is undertaken speedily and I have been told that the turnaround time for physiotherapists is now down to 69 days. I am also pleased to note the Trojan work ongoing across all CHOs to clear the assessment of need backlog.

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