Thousands of rooms rented for pandemic healthcare staff go unused

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Caroline O'Doherty

Thousands of rooms secured for healthcare staff working at the frontline of the Covid crisis have lain empty throughout the pandemic.

Occupancy rates for the rooms in hotels, bed and breakfasts, student accommodation and private houses and apartments have never been higher than 9pc.

Demand was highest in the middle of May when 662 of the 7,497 rooms were occupied, but that fell steadily to just 133 at the end of July.

By then, the State had removed some properties from its lists while the owners of others had asked for them back.

The properties were sourced in April when the full extent of the looming crisis became apparent and healthcare workers voiced fears about spreading the virus if they contracted it at work.

Frontline workers were eligible for the free accommodation mainly if they lived with family members who were vulnerable or self-isolating, or if they lived in shared accommodation with other health workers or in cramped conditions.

The rooms were also made available for health workers coming back from abroad as part of the 'Be on call for Ireland' initiative, and to staff who needed to live closer to their workplace to facilitate changes in their usual roster.

Use of 120 properties was secured, ranging from one-bed apartments to hotels with several hundred rooms in all counties except for Carlow.

No-one stayed in 22 of them while others were made available only up to the end of June.

In some cases, the State secured use of the entire property while in others an agreed number of rooms was set aside.

Payment arrangements for unused properties and rooms are unclear. In some cases, all rooms were paid for in the early weeks, after which payment was only for rooms used.

In other cases, it appears a reduced payment was made to reserve rooms until they were needed or given up. The HSE has been asked to clarify the arrangements.

The figures were supplied in response to a parliamentary question by Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae, who said they should have been made public as a matter of course.

"It's information that should be made available to the public and people can make up their own mind as to what they think of it," he said.

"But a lot of people have been asking questions about exactly what we did do or what we didn't do in this pandemic and they're entitled to answers.

"I don't think that we should have to be scraping and tearing trying to get information. When you're dealing with taxpayers' money, the taxpayer should be kept informed as to how their money is spent.

"We needed to make arrangements for healthcare workers, that's obviously very important, but you just have to be sensible about it."

The HSE last month released figures to Mr Healy-Rae for spending on accommodation for healthcare workers and other properties secured for use as testing, vaccination and patient care centres. The contracts run to millions of euro.

The largest spend on worker accommodation at the time was €299,525 on the 131-room Kingsley Hotel in Cork, up to July 15.

According to the latest figures, the hotel's highest occupancy was 60pc, or 78 rooms, in the last week in May but occupancy fell to 11pc, or 14 rooms, last month.

Across the country, the properties with the highest consistent occupancy tended to be apartments or self-catering units in holiday complexes.

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