The Health Service Executive has said it is to suspend the practice of informing employers of Covid-19 test results and seek guidance from the Data Protection Commissioner.

In a statement to RTÉ News the HSE said that in normal circumstances, employees should receive test results before they are sent to their employer.

However it said in "exceptional circumstances" the HSE would consider informing an employer prior to a worker.

It said that this course of action would only be considered if "it was considered essential for the public health good".

The HSE points out the legislative provision for such a move and says "In such exceptional circumstances Public Health would take into account the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981".

In view of the concerns raised by some employees in relation to this issue, the HSE will reconsider the use of exceptions and has suspended the practice while it seeks guidance from the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC).

Earlier the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, said the practice is a "breach of confidentiality".

He was commenting after RTÉ News revealed that in some cases, where mass screening of workforces takes place, the results were supplied to the companies before workers were informed of the results.

In many cases, the first time that people heard of their positive diagnosis was from their boss.

Mass screening has taken place at meat processing plants, nursing homes and other workplaces over recent weeks.

In some cases, the results were sent to employers who informed workers before the HSE. The DPC has said this is not legitimate.

The practice was confirmed in a letter from Minister for Health Simon Harris to Roscommon TD Denis Naughten.

Mr Harris said it has been necessary in the interests of what he called "public health" to give the results of confirmed cases of Covid-19 to the management of meat plants.

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HSE Chief Executive Paul Reid told the Dáil's Covid-19 committee today that the HSE wants to give results through GPs and then on to individuals.

But he said there are exceptional cases where public health officials have a responsibility in managing a major outbreak.

"There may have been one case - probably one case that we know of - where the employer was notified [about] the significant number of positive cases and that discretion is for the public health official to make."

The Migrants Rights Centre has said the practice is ludicrous and questioned why employers - whom it claimed had not acted quickly enough to curb the spread of the virus - were being trusted with such sensitive data.

Dr Holohan told the committee that "employers should not be receiving results for employees".

He said the practice whereby the HSE is giving employers the Covid-19 test results of their employees is "a breach of confidentiality, full stop".

Deputy Naughten said he welcomed confirmation that the HSE is to suspend its practice of sharing medical results with employers before employees.

But he has again questioned why the practice was used in the first instance.

"To date neither the Minister for Health nor the HSE have addressed the core point I made in Dáil Éireann last Thursday,  that this breach of data protection was because the current contact tracing system is just not working," said Mr Naughten.

The Data Protection Commission confirmed that it had received a number of complaints about the practice.