The health authorities want to avoid a second national lockdown but the measure could not be ruled out if there was a surge in the spread of Covid-19, according to one of the country’s leading public health experts.
Dr Cillian de Gascun, the chairman of the National Public Health Expert Team (NPHET) advisory group said the reintroduction of stay-at-home restrictions would be avoided “if at all possible”.
It followed a warning by the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Wednesday that the country was close to a second national lockdown because the State was at “a tipping point”.
A further 127 cases in the State were confirmed on Friday. This brings to 28,578 the total number of cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and leaves the death toll in the Republic at 1,777.
Of the cases confirmed on Friday, 52 are in Dublin, 13 are in Monaghan, nine are in Tipperary, eight are in Meath, eight are in Wexford, eight are in Roscommon and the remaining 29 are located in Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Offaly, Waterford, Westmeath and Wicklow.
Around 80 per cent of the cases are people under 45 years of age, while 70 of the confirmed cases are men and 57 are women.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Brendan O’Connor Show on Saturday, Dr de Gascun acknowledged the country was at a “critical phase” as the Government waited to see the impact over the next week of additional national restrictions on the gathering of people imposed last week.
“It’s really important that people continue with the enhanced measures and the enhanced public health guidelines,” said Dr Gascun, who is also director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory.
However, he said the reintroduction of a national lockdown could not be ruled out as the stay-at-home restrictions had been shown to work in suppressing the spread of Covid-19.
“It’s a tool in the armoury that you never exclude definitively,” he added.
Dr de Gascun acknowledged that a lockdown while effective in controlling the virus had a very significant impact on the Irish economy and people’s mental health.
He said NPHET was very conscious that the planned last phase of the reopening of the economy, which included pubs, had not been able to go ahead because of Covid-19 levels in the community.
Dr de Gascun said the way people went to pubs in the past was one of the highest risk environments for the spread of the virus but that there might be measures that the industry could put in place to reopen safely.
Greater Garda powers
On Friday, the Government agreed to give gardaí greater enforcement powers against pubs that do not comply with Covid-19 public health guidelines.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there was a €16 million package being made available for pubs that were being prohibited from reopening next week.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said on Friday there would be enhanced enforcement powers for pubs and restaurants after an increase over the summer in the number of non-complaint premises.
She said with the sanction of a superintendent a gardaí can order the closure of a pub for one day, and if there is still no compliance with this seven days, and then 30 days.
Mr Varadkar said he could not say with any certainty whether pubs would reopen this year.
Further regulations are being considered by the Government which would see workers in premises that serve drink and food be obliged to wear masks.
The Cabinet also agreed to ask the Attorney General to examine options for further regulating house parties. Under the proposals discussed by the Cabinet on Friday afternoon, it will be an offence to organise or attend a gathering in a private house with more than six visitors either indoors or outdoors. This measure was introduced as a guideline last week.
Ireland still in the first wave
Asked where Ireland was in the course of the pandemic, Dr de Gascun said he thought the State had interrupted the first wave through the introduction of stay-at-home restrictions and “the fantastic effort by everyone in the country”.
While it was difficult to know exactly from a virology perspective, he said he believed Ireland was still in the first wave as there had not been any significant change in the virus.
Dr de Gascun said it was “disappointing but not hugely surprising” that the summer weather did not have any great effect on the virus.
“So really people’s behaviour is what we have to count on to control it for the coming months until we do have an effective treatment or hopefully an effective vaccine in the next year,” he added.
He praised the public for taking the public health message to heart so well and for “continuing to do the right thing the majority of the time.”
Although a significant second surge of Covid-19 could be expected in the winter season, Dr de Gascun expressed confidence that the ongoing use of physical distancing, hand hygiene and wearing face masks would have an impact on all respiratory viruses, including the flu, over the coming months.
He pointed out that Australia had already experienced a very mild influenza season because of all the public health measures that had been in place to combat Covid-19.
“I think it’s important that we reassure people, to a degree, that we can control this,” he added.
Dr de Gasucn said there was no major difference between a zero Covid policy – the elimination of the virus rather than its suppression – and the one being pursued by the Government.
“Ultimately you want to suppress the virus as much as possible in the community while allowing people to get back to school and to get back to work and to protect our vulnerable,” he said.
As Ireland was an open economy which was impacted by the stay-at-home restrictions, Dr de Gascun said the aim was to reopen society as much as possible.
However, he stressed that people needed to be aware that aspects of daily life needed to be done in a different way and that such a required change in behaviour that could last for several years.