Simon Harris has said a final decision is yet to be made on a Government-backed subsidy for antigen testing.
Mr Harris said on Tuesday that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly will soon bring a final proposal to Cabinet for the public to be provided with cheaper antigen tests.
The Higher Education Minister said: “There is a final decision needed in relation to the subsidy and the cost.
“And I’ve no doubt the Minister for Health will bring that forward shortly. But I should say we’ve come an awful long way on antigen testing.”
Mr Harris said that since June, 25,000 rapid tests have been used at University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway and University College Cork as he defended the Government from criticism that it has been unwilling to wholeheartedly back antigen tests.
“They are free in many circumstances. So we’re not charging the students and the staff. We’re not charging close contacts. There isn’t a cost as far as I know, in the nursing homes, and whether you do that more broadly is a matter for the Minister for Health to obviously bring advice forward to Government,” he told reporters at Dublin Castle.
Mr Harris, a former health minister, appeared alongside Trinity College Dublin immunology expert Professor Luke O’Neill to call on people to submit ideas to the Government’s Creating our Future campaign.
The Government had been expected to make an announcement on subsidised antigen testing on Tuesday.
“I certainly know in my own life, more and more people are just getting on with it as well,” Mr Harris said.
“And people are buying the antigen test in the supermarket, in the pharmacy, but I accept that there’s a cost associated with that.
“And if we want people to do that regularly, and I do want to see people do that regularly, I think it’s important that we help them with the cost.”
Mr Harris also said it is important, even as Covid-19 cases rise and pressure on hospitals grows, not to “catastrophise” the situation.
“We all just need to proceed with caution. We do have to be careful not to catastrophise the situation as well.”
“This is different to last Christmas. It’s a moment of challenge, absolutely. But it’s a different challenge,” he told reporters.
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Prof O’Neill said he would have liked widespread antigen testing to have been introduced several months ago.
“I feel we should have got the message out pretty clear that these are very useful, this is the way to use them.
“And I would have done that three, four or five months ago, really. I’m slightly saying it’s been a bit slow. Now we’re getting there, though.”
He also said the Government should use Merck’s anti-Covid pill.
The European Medicines Agency has said that while the drug has not been approved, individual states can decide whether to use it to treat the most at-risk people.
Prof O’Neill said it could cut hospital admissions by up to 50 per cent.
“We should get that out now in our country, because that will help people at risk of severity and that will decrease hospitalisations.”
“Can you imagine if we’d half the people ending up in hospital now, less pressure on hospitals now?”
Earlier, Sinn Féin health spokesperson David Cullinane said Mr Donnelly was “not at the races” and accused him of not being “on top of his brief”.
“I have to say throw the kitchen sink at all of the tools that are at the state’s disposal, an individual’s disposal, to combat the spread of Covid-19.
“And that was the ambition – testing has a role to play. And I think it’s incredible that we still don’t have a plan. And we still don’t have any notion of what the Government is going to do in relation to costings.
“They’ve been talking and talking, talking about antigen testing, and people are getting really fed up of the incoherency, the lack of planning, the lack of engagement and the lack of urgency coming from Government.”