Government and Nphet divided on antigen testing as the country reopens

Significant differences have emerged between Ministers and public health officials over the use of antigen testing during the reopening of business and social life.

As The Irish Times report, senior members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), including chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and modelling chief Prof Philip Nolan, have advised caution on the use of antigen tests in recent days.

However, Ministers and the leaders of the three coalition parties are strongly in favour of rolling out the use of such tests to help with the reopening of many sectors of commercial and social life, including sports and cultural events.

Antigen tests are fast and can be self-administered, but have a higher rate of error than the PCR tests that are widely used by health authorities to test for the disease.


Dr Holohan and Prof Nolan have in recent days warned that these tests are not reliable enough to be taken as evidence that someone does not have Covid-19.

However, the tests were backed by a report compiled by a team of scientists and experts led by the Government’s chief science adviser, Prof Mark Ferguson, which said they could be used to complement other health measures and as a way of finding non-symptomatic cases.

Impatience in Government

Several Ministers are in favour of the use of the tests to facilitate reopening, and there is understood to be impatience in Government Buildings on the issue.

However, Dr Holohan again stressed his objections on Monday when he told RTÉ Radio the risk was that a negative test “might falsely reassure you. For every two cases of the disease where an antigen test is done, it will miss it in one of these cases. We can’t have people behaving as if they don’t have the disease when they do.”

Dr Holohan said it was not a question of trust in the public; it was the fact that the test did not give “a reliable enough” result.

However, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly in a statement on Monday night strongly backed the use of the tests.

“I believe rapid testing has a role to play in our fight against Covid-19,” he said.

“The expert report recommends that different Government departments and agencies establish pilots or feasibility studies in their respective sectors. Several of my Cabinet colleagues are now actively producing plans for their own sectors.”