It has emerged Fermanagh and Omagh District Council had agreed to a request from the Public Health Agency (PHA) to provide environmental health staff for Covid-19 contact tracing, and while this was set up and a start date in place, the initiative was “stood down”

There remains no indication if or when it will be activated, or exactly why it was halted.

The information was contained in a report by the Chief Executive of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council Alison McCullagh, around the council’s response to the Covid-19 health emergency.

This states an initial proposal was received from PHA on April 20, regarding the potential to utilise environmental health officers, in contact tracing, on a full cost recovery basis.

Officers were mobilised and rostered to work from week commencing April 27 – a very swift turnaround under the circumstances. However, this never actually started and the officers were subsequently “stood down” by PHA.

It remains unclear if or when they will ever be utilised.

The issue was revealed to members during the first main council meeting held for several months.

Ms. McCullagh told members: “We received an initial proposal from the PHA regarding the potential of using our officers in contact tracing.

“We were ready to mobilise from April 27, but then on subsequent advice from PHA, these officers have been stood down. We are not sure when they will be utilised, but we understand that remains the intention.”

Independent member Donal’Cofaigh suggested contacting PHA to establish why they initiated some form of contact tracing and then didn’t do it, particularly as this was should be progressed in the district.

Ms. McCullagh understood while it has to be formally confirmed: “The PHA are rolling this out. This issue is they are not using environmental health officers at the moment, and I think that is due to the wording of an existing Memorandum of Understanding.

“They don’t think it’s insurmountable. They think it will come but they can’t use our staff until it actually happens. It is happening and I think it will be expanded upon.”

Meanwhile, Acting Chief Executive of the PHA Olive MacLeod appeared before the Northern Ireland Assembly Health Committee on May 8, where she was challenged on comments made at a last month’s meeting, when she stated 500 people were being trained to conduct contact tracing.

Sinn Fein’s Pat Sheehan MLA, drew Ms. MacLeod’s attention to her remarks and enquired: “How’s that training going?” Ms. MacLeod began to respond by referring to the PHA estimate of needing to identify 500 people, but Mr Sheehan cut in and, quoting from the previous minutes, said: “You told us, ‘We have recruited 500 people who are currently being trained’ … You confirmed this was for contact tracing.”

Mr. Sheehan continued, “Are you now saying there weren’t 500 people recruited, and there weren’t 500 people being trained on April 16, when you told us that?” Ms. MacLeod replied: “We are saying, in relation to contact tracing, environmental health officials could make 400 people available to us, and they have the skills for contact tracing.”

When Mr. Sheehan pointed out this is not was said at the previous meeting, Ms. McCleod admitted: “I spoke out of turn. That is incorrect.”