Dramatic action needed to reduce spread of Covid-19 – infectious disease expert

Prof Sam McConkey warns of widespread infection in elderly if approach not changed

Prompt and dramatic national action is needed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 but the response need not be as “blunt” as the restrictive measures introduced in March, an infectious diseases expert has said.

Prof Sam McConkey, of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said the State was “in a bit of a pickle” and needed to take dramatic action if it was to stop the disease spreading to the older population, many of whom would die should that occur.

He was speaking to The Irish Times about the rise in the number of confirmed cases in recent weeks.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) this weekend reported 266 new cases of the disease including 66 on Sunday and 200 on Saturday, the highest daily total since early May. No new deaths from the disease were reported.


Prof McConkey said it would be wrong to take solace from the fact that so few Covid-19 related deaths were being reported.

Eleven people are reported to have died from Covid-19 in the first 15 days of this month.

Last month the equivalent figure was 10, while in June it was 56, and in May it was 253.

Prof McConkey said the low number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care, and the low number of deaths relative to the number of new infections being reported, would change.

“We are seeing outbreaks in workplaces amongst younger people, but once it gets into nursing homes we would see a much higher mortality,” he said on Sunday.

If the disease is spreading “really widely” among younger people this week, then “unless we change what we are doing, and do something different, then it is likely to spread to the elderly.”

“If we do nothing now, and continue as we have in the last two or three weeks, it is just going to get worse with lots of older people getting it.”

He said he was certain that the Government and its public health policy advisers were aware that there was a need for prompt national action.

Going back to phase one – when people were asked not to go more than 5km from their homes and older people were advised to cocoon – would be a bit draconian, he said.

“I would hope we can learn from what worked and what didn’t work, and do it with more finesse and less blunt force.”

Prof McConkey said Ireland was down to five cases a day in June, and could get back to that position again “if we all work together”.

It was his view that getting young people, including university students, back to schools and colleges was “profoundly important for our national future” and had to be a priority.

Other European countries have re-opened their educational systems and he believed it can be done “with pods and bubbles and hand-washing”.

Prof McConkey said he believed the political and diplomatic skills that were used by Ireland in relation to Brexit should now be used to convince the UK that the two islands needed to work together on Covid-19.

He said senior politicians needed to go to Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London and argue that Britain and Ireland need to follow the example of Jacinta Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand.

If the two islands could be reduced to a zero-Covid zone, and tight immigration controls introduced that included mandatory quarantine for anyone arriving into the UK or Ireland from outside those two jurisdictions “then we could open up our two economies”.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent