The number of health service personnel who have contracted Covid-19 is now nearly 10,000, the country’s largest public service trade union has said.
Fórsa said it wanted the various trade unions representing staff in the health sector to “increase pressure on the HSE to take action”.
The union said it believed the number of cases among health personnel – which it said was amongst the highest in Europe – was “largely down to a ‘derogation’ policy, which gives local management authority to require staff to return to work quickly after unprotected close contacts at work, including close contacts with known clusters”.
“Local managers are derogating significant numbers of staff to return to work because of pressures on the health service and health service staffing, and this means health workers who are in close contact with the virus are frequently not subject to the same infection control measures as others.”
Fórsa said the HSE had “insufficient national governance on the practice, and little insight into its impact on healthcare workers’ or patients’ health”.
In a bulletin to members on Thursday it said: “In early October, the HSE admitted to unions that it holds no national records of derogations. As a result, there are no reliable statistics on the numbers granted, where they are in place, or links between derogations and the spread of the virus among staff and others.”
The union’s head of health Éamonn Donnelly said the HSE’s approach to the problem was “casual”, against a background of almost 10,000 infections, which had likely led to further spread among the close contacts of at least some of those affected.
“Overall the HSE has done an excellent job in response to the pandemic, and its staff have shown great courage and commitment. It’s understandable that an imperfect policy was put in place at the height of the early emergency, when we knew little about the virus and the health service was struggling to put urgent responses in place. But the approach now needs to be reviewed and amended as a matter of urgency.”
The HSE told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response during the summer that at the very beginning of the pandemic “it was evident that there was a requirement for close contacts to be derogated back to work if they were deemed essential for services, under twice-daily active monitoring”.
It said guidelines were developed and issued in early March and that these had evolved subsequently.
The HSE said that “as derogations were issued locally and were a line management responsibility, there was currently no central oversight of the overall number of staff who were derogated”.