A sharp rise in the incidence of Covid-19 in counties near the Border is unlikely to be due to a "spillover" of infection from Northern Ireland, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has said.
However, Northern Ireland public health doctor Dr Gabriel Scally on Monday called for an urgent investigation of virus "hot spots" in Border counties and said a spillover of cases was "the most likely explanation" for the trend.
The incidence of Covid-19 has soared by up to 820 per cent in northeastern counties bordering the North in the past three weeks, and Cavan has passed out Dublin as the county with the most cases relative to population.
Dr Scally that while no conclusions should be drawn from the raw trend, it needed to be investigated “as a matter of urgency”, preferably within the framework of the Covid-19 memorandum of understanding between departments of health north and south.
“These increases are unlikely to have arisen by chance and the most reasonable explanation has to be the fact they are Border counties,” Dr Scally told The Irish Times.
Although official figures point to broadly similar case numbers and deaths in the Republic and Northern Ireland, Dr Scally said he believed the incidence of the disease in the North was higher. It was “almost impossible find out what is going on” in the North as data was “very limited”, he added.
But Dr Holohan insisted the experience of the disease across the island was similar “in broad terms” and he did not believe there had been any spillover from the North into the Republic.
He said he did not believe the variations in incidence across different counties were significant. “This is a disease and you get regional concentrations,” he commented.
There was “no case” for a regional approach to restrictions, he added.
Asked if he was comfortable that, due to a legal loophole, no travel restrictions could be applied to northerners travelling to holiday homes in the Republic this coming weekend, Dr Holohan said he wanted measures to restrict the virus operating consistently across the island.
Border TDs have called for the legislation imposing restrictions on movement to be amended to ensure they apply to everyone, including day visitors from outside the State.
The deaths of another 18 patients diagnosed with Covid-19 were reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) at its briefing on Monday, the lowest daily death toll in more than two weeks. There have now been 1,102 Covid-19-related deaths in the Republic.
NPHET also reported 386 new confirmed cases. The total number of confirmed cases now stands at 19,648.
Dr Holohan said it was “down to the wire” as to whether restrictions would be eased after they are due to run out on May 5th or would be rolled over.
He told the NPHET briefing he was “more firmly of the view” against recommending an easing of restriction than he had been last week due to factors such as the continued, though small, increase in admission of patients to ICU, the number of cases overall and the continued challenge posed by outbreaks in care settings.
There was “still a way to go” and further progress was needed, he said.
“While the numbers have improved, they’re still big numbers,” he said, pointing out that half of the standing ICU capacity was being used.
The number of people seeking testing for coronavirus is expected to rise again when the case definition applied for GPs referring patients is changed on Tuesday. Under the change, healthcare workers and other at-risk groups with one of the major symptoms – fever, cough or shortness of breath – will be tested, rather than requiring two symptoms as at present.
NPHET is due to meet on Tuesday and on Friday to finalise its recommendations to Government on whether the recommendations should be changed after May 5th.