The first suspicion that Ireland had a case of coronavirus came shortly after 6pm on Thursday when the North’s Public Health Agency (PHA) released a note about a 7pm press conference for an “important update” on Covid-19.
Despite the short notice, there was a big press attendance at the PHA’s office on Linenhall Street in central Belfast, where the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, confirmed a patient had tested positive.
He described the test as a “presumptive positive”, saying full confirmation would have to come after further tests at laboratories in England. There seemed little doubt that such confirmation would follow, however.
Dr McBride confirmed too that the patient had flown from northern Italy into Dublin Airport and travelled onwards to Northern Ireland.
It is understood the sufferer travelled north by public transport, but Dr McBride would make no such confirmation. Neither would he reveal if the patient a man or a woman, or what was his or her current condition.
Pressed that it was surely in the public interest for the public to know who this patient might have been in contact with, as he or she made their way to an unspecified location for isolation treatment, Dr McBride – in the interests of “patient confidentiality” – would not be more forthcoming.
Public health officials were making strenuous efforts to contact all those who had been in close contact with the individual.
“People who have had casual passing contact are not at high risk of contacting this virus,” he said.
Dr McBride described close contact as “closer than two metres for a period of time”.
He said “viruses don’t recognise boundaries or borders”, while adding that his first responsibility as chief medical officer was to “ensure that we take steps, working with our colleagues in the public health industry, working with colleagues in the HSE in the Republic of Ireland, to protect the population”.
While he was loath to provide much detail, he was anxious to try to provide assurances. He said: “There is ongoing co-operation and liaison between he respective public health bodies in Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland so the public can take confidence that we are working in a collective way to ensure an appropriate and proportionate response.”
He wanted to avoid causing unnecessary public concern and anxiety. He said “at this point in time” a “small number” of those in contact with the patient had been identified as at risk. “This is very much a very active contact tracing investigation,” he said.
In terms of people flying into Ireland while potentially carrying the virus, Dr McBride said: “We’ve got to appreciate the degree of interconnectedness that there is across the world in terms of fast rail links, flights . . . You know, we are a global village.”
And notwithstanding that interconnectedness, Dr McBride went back to the basics of explaining how to try to avoid the virus. He said: “We are urging people to follow the steps that we recommend for similar illnesses such as cold and flu – catch, bin it, kill it.
“Always carry tissues to catch your cough or sneeze, dispose of the tissue as soon as possible after using it, and clean your hands as soon as you can as germs can spread to every surface you touch.”
Dr McBride added: “Our advice to the public remains the same. Members of the public who have visited affected regions and have symptoms are advised to self-isolate at home and contact their GP in the first instance. Advice will then be given on next steps, including testing if required.”
He couldn’t say if coronavirus would become a pandemic. “That is a distinct possibility but it is by no means inevitable,” he said. In the meantime the work of “containment” would continue “to try to stop the virus in its tracks”.
Dr Adrian Mairs, the PHA’s acting director of public health , also offered assurances, saying: “Northern Ireland has well-prepared and rigorously tested plans for dealing with infectious diseases, and these have been activated.
“This will help ensure that the patient receives appropriate care, and the likelihood of spread is minimised. I would like to reassure the public that the risk to the wider population remains low,” he added.
Meanwhile, two of Ireland’s leading professional cyclists, Sam Bennett and Eddie Dunbar, were being checked for the virus in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Thursday night, where they were riding the seven-stage UAE Tour.
The cyclists had completed five stages and were set to race two more stages, on Friday and Saturday. However, as more cases of coronavirus were confirmed in UAE, it was decided the final two stages would not go ahead – an unprecedented move in cycling.
Irish champion and Giro d’Italia triple-stage winner Bennett, from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, and Banteer, Co Cork man Dunbar, who is a member of the world’s best professional squad Team Ineos, were being checked for the virus at their team hotels, as were all of the riders and staff on the race.