Ireland should prepare for pandemics every 5-10 years, says disease expert

Letting the virus ‘rip’ through the population would expose most vulnerable – McConkey

A detailed public health plan is needed to ensure the State is fully prepared for future pandemics which we should expect to happen every five years, infectious diseases expert Prof Sam McConkey has said.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland in 2020, the Irish Government dealt with the emergency by using a "flu plan", unlike Asian countries who had previously experienced these Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreaks and had detailed programmes ready for implementation, he said.

“I think we do need to learn public health planning. I’m delighted there’s now a public health specialist who’s making plans to deal with future public health and health emergencies . . . we need those for the future for about maybe 15 or 20 different emergencies,” Prof McConkey told RTÉ’s Brendan O’Connor show.

In January, the Government established the Public Health Reform Expert Advisory Group to review Ireland’s handling of the pandemic and examine the lessons to be learned for future health emergencies. The group will be chaired by former president of University College Dublin Prof Hugh Brady.


Prof McConkey said the west of Ireland did briefly experiences “CoV-1 Sars” in 2003 when one person tested positive for the virus. “But the good people of Galway put that one person who had it a single room and it didn’t spread anymore. So they did very good. And that stopped it spreading from from that person widely in the community.”

Meanwhile, medical experts have spent years working with epidemics such as the Lassa fever and Ebola across western African countries.

“There has been several pandemics, just none of them have really come to Ireland as much as this Sars,” said Prof McConkey. “Many of us have dealt with four or five pandemics in our working life so I think we should expect one every 5, 10, 15 years.”

Asked whether the National Public Health Emergency Team’s decision to end compulsory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops was tantamount to letting the virus “rip” through the population, Prof McConkey said it was an “oversimplification” of the situation.

“I think if we listen carefully to [chief medical officer] Tony Holohan, he’s saying we should move from the regulation of wearing masks in these places like schools, public transport and jobs to guidance. So he’s still advising us to do that. And I have no doubt that very many of us will continue to do that.

“It’s now guidance and recommended to wear a mask.”

Letting the virus “rip” through the population would be a very bad idea for the most vulnerable, he added.

“Unfortunately, lots of us have chronic diseases and don’t have a good immune system because we’re on steroids or biological therapies and all sorts of treatments or transplants. And those folks are very vulnerable to getting Covid. There is a need to protect the vulnerable in our society.”

The wearing of masks, enhanced Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and regular testing for Covid-19 will also continue in hospitals and changes in how nursing homes are managed will also remain in place, he added.

Measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing will be “voluntary on guidance rather than this heavy-handed authoritarian” model going forward, he said.

“I think that’s a very good move. It means we’ve kept our civility, we’ve kept our good ways of interacting with each other . . . We haven’t fallen out with each other as a nation, we’ve managed to keep the dialogue going.”

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, five more people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died.

The North’s Department of Health said another 2,147 confirmed cases of the virus have also been notified in the last 24-hour reporting period.

Daily Covid-19 case figures are no longer reported on weekends in the Republic. The figures for Saturday and Sunday will be available on Monday. As of 8am on Saturday, there were 579 people with Covid-19 in hospital. – Additional reporting: PA

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast