Coronavirus: Restrictions could remain in force for months, doctors warn

Number of cases jumped by 63% in a single day as school, colleges, public institutions close

All people coming back from Spain and Italy from today will be asked to restrict their movements for the next two weeks, which includes not going to work, the Minister for Health Simon Harris has said.

The decision was made following a meeting last night of the National Public Health Emergency Team.

Anyone returning from Italy and Spain will be met by environmental health workers on their return at the airport and told to restrict their movements. They will be asked "not quite to self isolate, but to restrict their movements," he told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.

The Deparment of Foreign Affairs is advising Irish citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Spain while citizens are advised not to travel to Italy at all.


On its website the deparment advises that a "significant number of cases of novel coronavirus (Covid-19) have been confirmed in Spain. The highest incidences are in Madrid, Vitoria and Labastida in the Basque Country, Catalonia and the Rioja region. For the moment, we recommend that non-essential travel to Spain be avoided." For those who are already in Spain, the department advises people to monitor developments regularly and follow the advice of local authorities.

Spain has over 2,000 cases and its government reported 84 deaths on Friday morning, up from 47 on Wednesday.

Unprecedented restrictions on public life aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus could remain in force for months, public health doctors have indicated after the number of cases jumped by 63 per cent in a single day.

Schools, colleges and creches, along with museums, galleries and other public buildings are today beginning a 19-day enforced period of closure designed to interrupt the transmission of Covid-19.

It is likely the school closures could extend to five weeks, until the end of the Easter holidays.

Other measures such as visitor restrictions at hospitals, nursing homes and prisons, and a ban on mass gatherings, as well as the closures are due to be reviewed before the end of the month.

However, they may have to remain in place "for an extended period of time" beyond March 29th, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said last night. He declined to specify how much longer the measures might have to apply.

Meanwhile, intensive care doctors warned last night they expected to have to make “challenging” triage decisions involving patients.

“Intensive care will need to be directed to those patients who are most likely to benefit and, in this instance, to save the most lives,” three groups representing intensive care staff said in a statement.

Amid concerns about the knock-on effects of school closures on healthcare workers needing childcare, it is understood the HSE is exploring with Government a stay-at-home payment for the partners of health staff.

Delay phase

After two weeks of trying to contain the virus, Ireland has now moved on to a delay phase in its efforts to combat it, according to Dr Holohan. The sudden escalation in restrictive measures was prompted by a massive jump in confirmed cases and further evidence of clusters of the disease as well as unexplained community transmission.

Another 27 newly discovered cases of coronavirus were reported on Thursday evening, by far the biggest daily jump in numbers since the start of the epidemic. The total number of cases in the Republic is 70, up from 43 on Wednesday.

Of the additional cases, 22 derived from contact with a previously confirmed case, two involved healthcare workers and three involved travel from an at-risk area. Six patients, including three of the new cases, are in intensive care.

Ireland is “exactly 14 days behind Italy” in terms of the rise in coronavirus cases, two Irish doctors writing in the British Medical Journal warned on Thursday. Critical care capacity will quickly be reached and services overwhelmed without an “effective and aggressive” public health response, Dr Liam Glynn and Dr Mike O’Callaghan say in a letter to the journal.

The measures signal a major divergence in approach from the UK, where prime minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that schools would remain open, despite it recording its largest single-day rise in cases. Schools and universities in Northern Ireland are also remaining open.

Uncharted territory

Announcing the measures during his much-curtailed St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington DC, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said older people and those with chronic diseases were at real risk. “We have a duty as a society to protect ourselves and, above all, to protect others – our parents and grandparents, our family and friends, co-workers and neighbours.

“We have not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living memory. This is uncharted territory.”

While recommending that all indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor mass gatherings of more than 500 people should be cancelled, the Taoiseach said ports, airports and shops would remain open and public transport would continue to operate.

“You should continue to go to work if you can but where possible should work from home,” he advised, adding that break times and working times should be staggered and meetings done remotely or by phone.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said thousands of lives could be saved through a collective national response to the measures announced by the Government.

Italy, the EU country worst affected by the virus, announced on Thursday that Covid-19 had killed almost 200 people in 24 hours, bringing its death toll to 1,016.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times