Coronavirus: NPHET letter to Government warns of ‘extremely critical juncture’ for Dublin

No further opportunity to control virus in capital without further measures - Dr Glynn

Outdoor diners in Dublin city centre on Friday. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

Outdoor diners in Dublin city centre on Friday. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

 

The State’s public health emergency team has warned the Government that the profile of coronavirus in Dublin is at an “extremely critical juncture”.

Recommending more severe restrictions to curb the spread of the virus in the county, acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn told the Government that there was no further opportunity to bring the disease under control in Dublin without further measures.

Dr Glynn informed the Government by letter that the National Public Health Emergency Team believes “the window of opportunity to bring the disease under control in the county without significant additional measures is no longer available”.

He said NPHET considered a number of alternative additional restrictions to avoid restricting indoor dining in restaurants and gastropubs, including limitations on groups, reduced capacity and earlier closing times.

“However, given the severity of the epidemiological situation in Dublin, NPHET concluded that on balance there was a necessity to apply measures at the limit of the options available under Level 3, which is to no longer permit indoor dining,” he said.

‘Out of control’

Earlier on Friday, chair of NPHET’s epidemiological modelling advisory group, Prof Philip Nolan, said bars, restaurants, gyms and households are all contributing to the spread of coronavirus in Dublin and unless we stop people mixing in these settings it will “spiral out of control”.

In a series of Tweets, Prof Nolan explained the decision of NPHET to recommend that indoor dining be banned and pubs not serving food should stay closed saying: “We know that in Dublin at least one in three cases are community transmission. Where is this happening? Wherever we mix socially: our houses, gyms, bars, restaurants. Sadly, unless we stop mixing in these settings, we know the disease will spiral out of control.”

NPHET met on Thursday and recommended that Dublin move to Level 3 of the Government’s Living with Covid strategy. They have also recommended that pubs and restaurants which serve food will only be permitted to open in the capital if they have outdoor dining facilities or for takeaway services. So-called ‘wet pubs’ that don’t serve food have already been told the will have to stay closed when similar premises open on September 21st.

The Cabinet is expected to sign off on the NPHET recommendations on Friday at a meeting starting at 2.30pm.

Prof Philip Nolan, Chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Prof Philip Nolan, Chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

‘Hospitality lockdown’

The Government was accused earlier of making the hospitality sector “pay for the sins of others” and of being “on the verge of destroying” its own plan with restaurant owners pointing out the spread of the virus in Dublin was in households. Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI) said “we’re not the problem, the problem is in households”.

“This is effectively a hospitality lockdown,” Mr Cummins told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Friday.

However, Prof Nolan Tweeted: “It is reasonable to ask: why close restaurants and pubs if there are so few outbreaks associated with those environments? However, this is misreading and misinterpreting the data on outbreaks and cluster.

“If I went out 5 days ago and caught the virus in a restaurant, it will have multiplied silently inside me for 3 days; then I will have started shedding virus, and potentially infecting others, for 2 days; today I become symptomatic, self-isolate, and get a test.

“Public health only ask me about my contacts for the 48 hours before I developed symptoms. They don’t need to know where I got the virus; that happened 5 days ago. They want to know where the virus is going, who I might have infected, and prevent onward transmission.

“My contacts are tested, and unfortunately two of my family are infected. It’s now a household outbreak, and I am a case of community transmission. Even though I got it in a restaurant and brought it home.”

He said there was no time or resource to trace back such cases to find out where people are getting the virus, but added: “We have lots of international evidence from better resourced systems on how the virus transmits: we know that social settings, including bars and restaurants, drive community transmission.

“We know that in Dublin at least one in three cases are community transmission. Where is this happening? Wherever we mix socially: our houses, gyms, bars, restaurants. Sadly, unless we stop mixing in these settings, we know the disease will spiral out of control.”

Priority to save lives

Meanwhile Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht Catherine Martin said that the Government’s priority was to save lives, but that any measures introduced must strike a balance and health has to come first.

The public health advice was that unless steps were taken to reduce the level of contacts then the number of cases and hospitalisations and even deaths would increase exponentially in the coming weeks, she told Newstalk Breakfast.

“We must stop the virus taking a hold of this country, we must prioritise saving lives.”

The Minister said she had huge empathy for businesses “already on their knees” but the health advice was compelling, she said and that was what the Government would have to follow.

“If the experts are saying there’s a danger with people gathering, then we have to listen to the experts. The decisions we take now will ultimately save lives - that’s where we are right now with this pandemic.”

Ms Martin said that many of the sectors she represents were being “horrifically impacted” by the pandemic and if a decision was taken for further restrictions then she would be seeking “strong financial supports”.

Mr Cummins said the restaurant sector was shocked at the restrictions and that there had been no consultation. “We had no indication of what the restrictions would be,” he said.

With winter approaching the proposal in relation to outdoor dining would not mean anything, he said as the Irish hospitality sector was not “geared up” for such a service.

“This is about livelihoods. Businesses are now staring down the banks looking for loans to be paid, landlords looking for rent and suppliers looking to be paid. The industry is in crisis,” he added.

“The Government needs to step up to the plate and come up with an aid package if the restrictions come in tonight.”

Mr Cummins said that the hospitality sector wanted to do its part with regard to public health but they felt that the Government was targeting the sector with the least amount of cases.

“This will have huge ramifications for the industry,” he said.

Mr Cummins warned of job losses of between 30,000 and 50,000 in the county of Dublin adding “many small businesses will not recover”.

‘Pick and mix’

The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA), which represents publicans in Dublin, accused the Government of undertaking a “pick and mix approach” to its Living with Covid strategy which “renders it meaningless”.

The LVA has pointed out that Level 3 of the plan states there will be “additional restrictions for indoor dining” for bars, cafes and restaurants, while Level 4 specifies “take away food or delivery” and “no indoor dining.”

It also states that ‘wet pubs’ can remain open at Levels 2 and 3 (with additional restrictions). The Government has already said that Dublin’s ‘wet pubs’ will not open with those in the rest of the country on Monday.

Donall O’Keeffe, chief executive of the LVA, said if the Government proceeds with the restrictions to limit pubs and restaurants in the capital to outdoor seating only, “effectively they will have destroyed their own plan within three days of publishing it.”

“They said this new plan was to offer the country and businesses certainty. At the announcement they said the country was at Level 2 but they were putting the non-food pubs of Dublin into Level 5 by keeping them closed. Now it looks like they are about to move most of Dublin to Level 3 but the pubs and restaurants will be put in Level 4,” Mr O’Keefe said.

“Effectively the Government and NPHET are adopting a pick and mix approach to the new national strategy which renders it meaningless. How is Irish society meant to function if the levels outlined in this plan are disregarded by it own authors within a matter of days?”

Mr O’Keefe said they are also seeking clarity from NPHET and the Government as to why they are “continuing to take action against the hospitality sector when the latest HSPC data clearly shows this isn’t where the problem lies”.

“There are zero open outbreaks in pubs. Compare that with the number of outbreaks in other workplaces or private houses,” he added.

“Yet it is pubs and restaurants who have abided by the regulations since the outset of this crisis which are the focus of additional restrictions. On what basis does that approach make sense? They are doing all they can to keep the pubs closed by default.