Covid-19: Government urged to begin six-week lockdown on St Stephen’s Day
Nphet warns of ‘rapidly escalating’ virus amid concern over arrival of new variant
Dr Cillian De Gascun, the chair of the Covid-19 expert advisory group, said monitoring of samples taken last weekend suggested the UK variant may be present in about 10 per cent of swabs analysed. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
The Government has been told to institute a six-week Level 5 lockdown starting on St Stephen’s Day, as public health officials said data indicates a new variant first detected in the UK of Covid-19 is present in Ireland.
Such a move, which would come into effect at midnight, would entail a closure of non-essential retail, which the Government decided to keep open earlier this week. Under Level 5, household visits are also banned.
Amid deepening concern over the new variant and the level of disease in the State, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) warned on Wednesday that, as the country enters the Christmas period, it is “being hit very hard by a rapidly escalating and rapidly transmitting virus”.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the situation was “very sobering”. He told The Irish Times that new variants of the virus from South Africa and the UK, combined with a rapid rise in infection rates across all age groups, meant “it’s the most serious situation since I became health Minister”.
Every form of discretionary socialisation really has to stop if we’re to have a chance of suppressing this kind of level of transmission
He said people should exercise “great caution” and “think very carefully” about meeting vulnerable relatives on Christmas, especially if they had been socialising.
In a letter sent to Mr Donnelly on Wednesday evening, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan warned of serious concerns about protecting the healthcare system.
Earlier, HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the country is facing “very serious and dangerous” levels of Covid-19 infection, which threatens to have a “major impact” on the hospital system.
Dr Cillian De Gascun, the chair of the Covid-19 expert advisory group, said monitoring of samples taken last weekend suggested the UK variant may be present in about 10 per cent of swabs analysed.
However, Dr Holohan said the rise in cases could not be attributed to the presence in Ireland of the new variant, which early studies suggest is more infectious. He said that since restrictions were changed at the beginning of December, “the level of social contact that has happened, in particular around hospitality, has led to a very significant increase in the transmission of this infection”.
Dr Holohan said “every form of discretionary socialisation really has to stop if we’re to have a chance of suppressing this kind of level of transmission”. He said there was a “clear temporal association” between the opening of hospitality and a very significant increase in the spread of the disease.
The chair of Nphet’s epidemiological advisory group Prof Philip Nolan said the relaxation of December 1st caused an increase in cases, but the relaxation of restrictions on hospitality “coincides with a very rapid acceleration in the level of disease”.
The R number, an estimate of how quickly the virus is moving through the population, is currently estimated between 1.5 and 1.8, Prof Nolan said. If it could be brought down to 1.4, there would be 1,100 cases per day by January 4th, and 1,600 by January 18th. If it could be forced to 1.1, those numbers would be 1,000 and 1,200 respectively, but even if it came down to 1.0, he said case numbers of around 1,000 per day would continue.
Prof Nolan said he did not believe the current measures would be sufficient to drive the number below 1. “Given the nature of the measures and our experience to date, I’m not confident that they alone are sufficient, particularly given where we’re starting from.”
There is deep and grave concern among senior Government sources over the potential impact of the variant, despite the Nphet view that it has not yet substantially driven infection here. While Government is anxious to protect schools, the economy and other essential services, senior sources fear that March-style restrictions may need to be examined in the New Year.
Asked about the reopening of schools in January, Dr Holohan said “we are not raising any issue about that at this point in time”. However, citing previous closure of healthcare and the impact on nursing homes, he warned that high levels of community transmission “represent a risk to all the things that happen in society”.
In Northern Ireland, the first case of the new variant of coronavirus was confirmed on Wednesday night.
The North’s Department of Health said its analysis indicated the variant was likely to have been present in Northern Ireland “for a period of time”.
“This new variant had been detected in increasing numbers in the southeast of England. It is increasingly likely that it is also established across other regions of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland,” the department said in a statement.