Ireland needs to move to ‘zero-Covid’ policy to avoid catastrophe, scientists say

Health experts seek meeting with Oireachtas coronavirus group and call for new measures

Dr Gabriel Scally is a member of the ‘Zero-Covid Island’ group. File photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

Dr Gabriel Scally is a member of the ‘Zero-Covid Island’ group. File photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

 

Ireland urgently needs to move to a “zero-Covid” policy in order to avert long-term “social and economic catastrophe”, leading Irish scientists have warned.

The scientists say there is a “small and narrowing” window to bring the incidence of Covid-19 here to zero and to keep it there, thereby allowing schools and colleges to return safely and operate normally.

The group, which has written seeking a meeting with the Oireachtas special committee on Covid-19, is calling for the universal use of masks in enclosed spaces and “more targeted” finding, testing, tracking and isolation of cases.

It also says an “effective and fair” system of testing and isolating incoming travellers needs to be introduced.

The scientists suggest a regional response here to coronavirus outbreaks, saying there should be a wider use of “green zones internally” as the best route back to a normally functioning economy and community.

In their letter to committee chairman Michael McNamara, the scientists say Ireland is heading into a long-term social and economic catastrophe “with an unknown but significant associated burden of death, disease and disability.

“Our proposal, to avoid this by moving to a zero-Covid policy, a policy backed by science, experience and extensive analysis, should be considered at national political level.”

The letter is signed by Prof Anthony Staines, professor of health systems at Dublin City University, on behalf of the “Zero-Covid Island” group. Its 12 members include infectious diseases specialist Prof Sam McConkey, Northern Ireland public health doctor Dr Gabriel Scally, Trinity College Dublin biochemist Dr Tomás Ryan and Prof Gerard Killeen of University College Cork.

‘Unclear’ direction

While Ireland’s lockdown policy from last March worked, and was an appropriate response to an emergency situation, the current direction of national policy on the pandemic is “unclear”, the group says.

“This has a new urgency as schools and colleges plan to reopen, and as the pressure to increase incoming flights and tourists rises. The current policy is to ‘live with the virus’. It seems that there is an implicit hope that a vaccine will be available soon, but vaccine experts urge caution, and suggest late 2021 as the earliest likely date for population vaccination.”

To allow for a normal opening of education, the Republic needs to adopt a zero-Covid island policy, sharing experiences and ideas with Northern Ireland, the group says.

“Very recent US evidence shows that the main driver of economic injury is the infection itself, and not government responses, such as lockdowns and other restrictions on movement.

“We believe that many of the public understand this, and will support a credible zero-Covid island policy, both to avoid a second wave, and because of the tangible positive rewards.

“We have a choice to make: continue with the current ‘live with the virus’ approach which carries significant cost without a clear destination, or take the socially and financially beneficial zero-Covid island approach.”

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