More walks and less TV could help limit Covid spread at Christmas – WHO doctor

Mike Ryan says people must consider proximity, duration and location of events

Mike Ryan is leading the World Health Organisation’s response to Covid-19. File photograph:AFP via Getty Images

Mike Ryan is leading the World Health Organisation’s response to Covid-19. File photograph:AFP via Getty Images

 

People gathering to celebrate Christmas need to act as their own “risk calculators”, the Irish doctor who is leading the world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has said.

People need to think “where are the pinch points, the times when people come together and spend significant time in the same place,” Dr Mike Ryan said in response to questions from Irish journalists.

Maybe people could go for a walk after the Christmas dinner rather than sitting around in a room with the windows closed watching TV, he said.

“These are the small choices we make. It really is about proximity, and duration, and location.”

Dr Ryan was taking part in an online press conference prior to being awarded the Bar of Ireland Human Rights Award later today.

The award ceremony, during which he is to make an address, will be live-streamed on the Bar of Ireland’s Twitter account from 4.30 pm on Thursday (@TheBarofIreland).

The executive director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the Government and the people of Ireland are having to balance the desire to celebrate Christmas with the need to contain the virus.

“These are a series of trade-offs and genuine dilemmas, for which there are no correct scientific answers,” he said.

There needs to be very clear advice from Government on reducing risk, and a very calibrated set of measures that society agrees on.

Using the analogy of a sponge being left in water and absorbing water, he said the likelihood of people becoming “saturated” with the virus depended on the duration to which they were in contact with a person who had the virus, and their closeness to that person.

Everyone should be their own “risk calculator” and manage their possible exposure, especially those who are older or who have underlying conditions. Also younger people had to remember their responsibility to others.

If you are a student coming home for Christmas who had been mixing with lots of young people in an area where the virus is, then you “really really need to think about where I sleep, where I go to the bathroom, should I be in the small kitchen helping mum prepare the Christmas dinner?” he said.

If everybody looked at their behaviour and how they could minimise the risk to others, then he believed people can “de-risk” the situation. He believed that young people had been acting really responsibly.

“People are smart,” he said. “We are designed to manage risk as human beings.”

It has been the pattern that, when restrictions are lifted,the infection rate begins to rise again, Dr Ryan said.

Ireland, to his knowledge, had been the first European country to “bend the curve” of the new wave of infections, and the people, the Government, and the scientists, needed to be given credit for this.

When restrictions are lifted, there is the possibility of a new wave of infections. Then the question is, “how good is the testing, the contact tracing, have the other systems stood up?”

Will we go back into a new wave of the disease, or “do we have a more Asian outcome, where we have much better control at local level”?

He said the reasons why some countries in Asia are doing so well are complex and location specific but include centralised policy-making that is implemented locally, as well as a strong sense of social responsibility.

Dr Ryan said he had concerns about people being slow to take up a vaccine when it became available, and that “the best vaccine against disinformation” was good information.

There was no use decrying the move to the online world, and we just needed to get better at using the platform.

It would be a “real tragedy” if vaccines became available and we had people who didn’t want to use them.

No-one gets it right all the time but Ireland had had some great leadership from the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team, Dr Ryan said.