The acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn and his Northern Ireland counterpart Dr Michael McBride have appealed for people to avoid unnecessary travel between across the Border in Co Donegal and neighbouring areas in the North.
“Given the current number of new cases [of Covid-19] in Donegal and neighbouring areas of NI in Derry, Strabane and Fermanagh we would appeal to everyone to avoid all but necessary travel across the border,” the pair said in a joint statement on Friday afternoon.
Co Donegal is set to move to Level 3 of the Government’s five-level Covid-19 restrictions scale from midnight on Friday.
It was recommended that employers on both sides of the Border should make every effort to facilitate staff to work from home.
The statement followed a meeting between both men on Friday morning where they discussed the growth of virus in the region and stressed the need for ongoing co-operation between the North and Republic.
The statement also acknowledged the need for close collaboration in other other Border areas, not just in Donegal and Derry, where the situation continues to develop.
They noted particular concern regarding the growth of cases in young people in Donegal and Derry and asked teenagers, as well as those in their twenties and thirties, to reduce their social contacts.
Both chief medical officers appealled to the public across the island of Ireland to follow public health advice to curb the spread of Covid-19.
As Co Donegal prepared to enter Level 3 restrictions, there has been renewed focus on movement of people across the Border with Northern Ireland.
The Government moved swiftly on Thursday to elevate the region to Level 3 of the five-level scale after a dramatic and rapid deterioration of the situation with the virus in the county.
The move came after a substantial increases in the cases in the county with the 14-day rate in Lifford and Stranorlar area at 336 per 100,000 people. The number of cases per 100,000 over the past fortnight in the county increased to 148.2, the highest in the country.
It is now higher than Dublin’s rate of about 145. Nearby Derry and Strabane across the Border has one of the highest rates of infection in the North.
Public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally said that it was “beyond sensible but essential” to have “seamless” Covid-19 measures in Donegal and Derry to avoid travel between the two counties.
He warned of the risk of people in Donegal, where indoor drinking in pubs has now been closed under the new restrictions on the country, travelling across the Border to drink indoors in bars in Northern Ireland, particularly as the evenings become colder.
“If it looks like there is an unevenness of measures between the two places, particularly in terms of retail or hospitality industries, that would be extremely detrimental,” said Dr Scally.
The “distinctive situation” in the Border region with the movement of people between Donegal and Derry “reinforces the need for harmonisation for measures” north and south, he said.
‘Civil and moral conscience’
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken with the North’s First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill about the need for a “pragmatic and practical” policy designed to reduce travel north and south except for work, education or essential reasons.
People across the Border from Co Donegal were urged on Thursday to use their “civil and moral conscience” if considering visiting the county.
Insp David Durkin, who is in charge of the emergency planning for the local force, said gardaí could not stop people from coming into the county from neighbouring Derry and Tyrone. He did not see a situation whereby gardaí would set up checkpoints along the Border, such as happened during the start of the national lockdown in March.
“We will be saying to people not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary and you have to. We would also be appealing to people across the Border to use their moral and civic conscience if considering travelling to Donegal, and again not to travel unless absolutely necessary.”
One of the most challenging aspects of the lockdown in Donegal will be its daily interactions, with many thousands of people working and going to school between both areas.
Meanwhile, Lifford, Co Donegal GP Dr Martin Coyne has said that the proximity of Derry to Donegal has contributed to the rising level of cases in his county.
The Border does not exist for people going to and from work, to shop, socialise or go to school on either side of the Border he told Newstalk Breakfast. It was not one way traffic and people from Donegal could have brought the virus to Derry.
His practice had seen 17 cases between March and September 17th, in the two weeks since he had seen 54 patients he said. It appeared that social gatherings such as birthday parties, Leaving Cert result parties, communions, and, unfortunately a wake, were responsible for this surge.
“People have been gathering together and probably not respecting social distancing advice. Unfortunately, it has got into our community now and it is spreading.”
Dr Coyne urged people to “keep their guard up” and to remember, “how horrible a condition this is.” He warned that even if patients did not end up in hospital, some would be “miserably unwell” while others would be severely restricted.
“People need to look up the HSE website and see what self-isolation actually means. It means you have to stay in your own house, in your own room and not mix with anybody for 10 days – it is like being in prison for 10 days. If you are a contact of somebody who has had Covid-19, you should self-isolate for 14 days until you get the all-clear from public health.”
Dr Coyne added that Covid-19 was not “a minor, Mickey Mouse condition to get.” People should respect that and think twice before they decided, ‘this doesn’t apply to me’, this is a minor illness and the other aspect is that, if you are young and Covid-positive, you may not know and you may bring it home to those that are vulnerable to the condition.”