Defence forces staff should be transferred to contact tracing duties immediately to allow speech therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to return to providing essential frontline services for children across the Country, Denis Naughten TD told the Dáil this week.
He pointed out that three-quarters of speech and language therapists in counties Roscommon and Galway are currently involved in contact tracing, adding: “Before the lockdown, there was a four-year waiting list to access speech and language therapy in those counties. That means a preschool child referred to speech and language services might not get support before his or her Holy Communion.
“At present, 1,049 children in the two counties are awaiting access to speech and language therapy but three-quarters of the speech and language therapists are directly involved in contact tracing. This is not a good use of scarce therapy resources. It is not just speech and language therapists. I have received reports that occupational therapists, physiotherapists, audiologists and podiatrists, to name but a few highly trained staff, have been redeployed since the Covid-19 lockdown and remain redeployed in other areas of the health system while the waiting lists for vulnerable children mount and mount.”
He also pointed out that this practice is happening with HSE therapy posts right across the country, and while such staff have not returned to their original roles many of the private providers have been back delivering these exact same services, and charging for them, for the last few months.
Denis Naughten informed that Dáil that having raised the issue with the Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, he understood that Defence Forces staff would be made available to provide contact tracing if the HSE asked for them.
Denis Naughten added: “He (Minister Coveney) also told the House that only 24 of the 647 applications received from former Defence Forces personnel to re-enlist to help out during the pandemic had been approved due to eligibility criteria, such as age. Surely some of those 623 applicants and, I am sure, many more staff who have answered Ireland’s call, and staff who have already left the HSE, would be willing to come back to help out in order that children could learn to talk or to walk and that children could have ordinary everyday lives, just like their brothers and sisters and friends and neighbours. Surely it is not too much to ask that these valuable therapists would be sent back to the job that they should be doing at the front line, treating children on a day-to-day basis, instead of picking up the phone?
“How can it be that it has taken months after these staff were redeployed for any attempt to be made to recruit contact tracers? What is even more appalling is the fact that the therapists involved in the Galway-Roscommon autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit based in Athenry were, prior to Covid-19, involved in a reconfiguration of that service which was to be completed by January of next year. It would not surprise me if Covid-19 is now used as an excuse to drag out that process, rather than the reconfiguration having been done during the lockdown when those therapists were not seeing children. That will add further delays.
“These therapists should be put back to doing the work they ought to be doing today. I do not wish for the Government to wait until next Monday to make this happen. It needs to happen immediately. These staff should never have been redeployed in the first instance. After the first wave of infection, they should have been the first staff to be sent back to their front-line services, rather than sending back the clerical staff and having these staff still tied up in contact tracing.”
Responding on behalf of the Minister for Health, Minister of State, Frank Feighan, said: “HR in community operations has been in dialogue with trade union partners regarding the matter and has agreed to progress a roadmap for the return of all staff to their substantive roles as the new staff come on stream in a co-ordinated way.”
“While the decision by Government to recruit additional public health staff this week is welcome, it is unjust that child focused services are being shelved when there are many other staff who could perform the contact tracing telephone service” concluded Denis Naughten