The Health Service Executive has apologised to the nearly 2,000 people who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month and who were asked to do their own contact tracing.

In an opening statement to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health, Niamh O'Beirne, the HSE's National Lead for Testing and Tracing, said the executive plans to call everyone it missed this week to check they were able to identify contacts and advise them to be tested.

Ms O'Beirne said that the rapid rise in cases earlier this month exceeded the capacity of the HSE's tracing system.

She said that six weeks ago 8,500 calls a week were being made by contact tracers and this increased in the last week to over 38,000 calls.

Ms O'Beirne told the committee that the decision to ask 1,971 people who had tested positive for the virus to notify their own close contacts was taken to ensure that each person received information as quickly as possible.

She said that while this was clearly not ideal, it was deemed to be the only viable option in order to deal with the most recent cases quickly and reset the system.

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Ms O'Beirne also pointed out that since Friday, 23 October, the contact tracing system is back on track and added that in order to address future demand the HSE is currently recruiting additional contact tracers.

She said that the HSE plans to recruit up to 800 tracers; 274 new staff have been taken on board to date, with a further 90 staff expected to be on board by the end of this week.

Ms O'Beirne said that as the pandemic continues to develop, the HSE will respond daily and design and implement a long-term sustainable test and trace operating model.

Sinn Féin's Health spokesperson David Cullinane asked why the HSE did not use the summer months to build up contact tracing numbers to 800.

He said if all the staff had been in place it may have been the case that the system would not have collapsed and the HSE would not have had to apologise.

In response, Ms O'Beirne said that over the summer months staff deployed for contract tracing had come from universities and different parts of the HSE and revenue and they returned to their roles.

She said that the recruitment process began in August and they had to develop role descriptions and go through applications and that was what had been going on in the last number of weeks.

She admitted that it was not ideal that there was not enough staff, but in early October, the number of Covid-19 cases went from 544 to 1,000 overnight.

HSE chief executive Paul Reid said on Twitter this morning: "Hospitals, testing and tracing systems in many EU countries are under severe strain today.

"Many have greater capacity than our hospitals for beds and ICU. I know it is hard on many, but what we continue to do is protecting us to date from ending up in the same place."

The HSE yesterday promised that in eight weeks' time it will have 800 contact tracers recruited to deal with Covid-19.