Coronavirus: Government to seek to keep public spaces open

Varadkar says further restrictions will only be implemented based on expert advice

Elizabeth Canavan from the Department of the Taoiseach outlines the latest measures the Government are taking to deal with problems arising from Covid-19. Video: RTE

 

The Government will seek to keep public spaces such as parks, forests and beaches open for people to use but will emphasise the need for everyone to maintain social distancing.

Four people have died and there are currently 906 positive cases of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, in the Republic.

In Northern Ireland, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 20 on Monday to 148. To date, two people have died of the virus in the North.

At a briefing at Government Buildings on Monday morning, a senior official said that the Government would consult with national parks, Coillte, the Heritage Council and local authorities “to develop clear, simple public messaging so we can continue to enjoy these public spaces at this time”.

Elizabeth Canavan, an assistant secretary in the Department of the Taoiseach, told journalists that the Government had received “significant feedback from the public in relation to the lack of social distancing”.

“It’s clear that that the vast majority of people are complying with the guidelines, but clearly compliant is not universal,” she said.

She said the Government would seek to keep public spaces open while reinforcing the need to keep distance between people.

Ms Canavan also said anyone who applied for social welfare payments last week would receive a payment in their bank accounts tomorrow. However, she warned that scammers are contacting people purporting to be from the Department of Social Protection asking for bank details.

“You will not get a phone call asking for your bank details from the Government,” she said. Social protection payments would be made every two weeks, she said.

Ms Canavan also said that immigration applications would now move online, and the immigration offices in Dublin had now closed.

Further restrictions

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar indicated the Government is not thinking in terms of implementing severe restrictions on movement at this moment in time but may impose some further restrictions.

Mr Varadkar responded to scenes over the weekend where parks and public places - especially in Co Dublin and Co Wicklow - became very crowded by saying that people had probably gone to those places not expecting such large crowds.

“In fairness to those people they probably turned up not realising how crowded they were going to be,” he said.

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“I don’t think we should be berating people about this. We have asked the Chief Medical Officer and the National Public Emergency Team to examine that with a view to coming up with more recommendations for Government tomorrow.

“If they recommend further restrictions we will implement them,” he said.

Mr Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris both emphasised the evidence emerging from contact tracing teams of the social distancing measures having already had an impact.

“Most people most of the time are adhering to social distancing,” said Mr Varadkar.

“We see some evidence in the contact tracing that that is the case,” he said.

He said any decision that will be made on social restrictions “will not be made because of what is trending on Twitter, because of populism or political pressure”.

He said it would be based solely on expert advice.

Earlier on Monday morning, Mr Harris said social distancing is not “something nice to do, it is about saving lives”.

Ireland cannot go the way of Italy, he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

It was important to look after people’s physical and mental health, but mass gatherings in parks were “not on”, he said.

Mr Harris said he had been overwhelmed by the sense of solidarity being displayed around the country and also by the dedication of those in the health service. The welfare of health care workers was key and everyone needed to work “extremely hard” to protect health workers.

When asked about the possibility of further restrictions, Mr Harris said people were making a conscious effort at social distancing. He said he would await greater guidance about playgrounds and public spaces.

People still need to abide by social distancing, he said. People must stay two metres apart.

The president of the Irish College of General Practitioners, Dr Mary Favier, has said it was inevitable that more measures will be introduced to ensure physical distancing.

Dr Favier told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that “physical distancing” was a much better description than “social distancing” and that more needed to be done as “particular groups” did not seem to understand the necessity for physical distancing.

It was up to us as a society to make the personal decision to create a physical distance rather than to have to introduce mandatory measures, she said. Ultimately it was people in the community who would save lives, doctors would “pick up the pieces.”

Back log

Dr Favier acknowledged there was a significant back log on testing, but pointed out that GPs could not expedite tests or results which would go directly to patients.

“We would ask people not to ring their GP, we don’t have the information.”

However, she said that anyone who developed respiratory symptoms or anyone who was awaiting testing and their symptoms got worse should immediately contact their GP.

Testing for health care professionals was vital, added Dr Favier as there was already a shortage of GPs in the country and the health service could not afford to have GPs going into isolation while awaiting testing.

Speaking on Newstalk, Mr Harris said orders of face masks, goggles and gowns were being packed up in China and an airline was going to collect them, they should arrive by the end of the week.

On the issue of wait times for tests – Mr Harris said the changed criteria for testing had brought about huge pressures. Efforts were under way to get more testing kits, there are now far more testing centres and there are 10 labs around the country running the tests.

“We are testing, testing, testing, but the most important thing is that if you think you have the symptoms you must self-isolate. That is the most important thing you can do for yourself, your family, your country.