Coronavirus: Advice on face masks for Ireland’s over 60s to be reviewed this week, committee hears

Management of second wave will be different from first, chair of epidemiology group says

Guidance that people over 60 should wear a face mask "seems like a practical approach" but it depends on the setting, the Covid-19 Oireachtas committee has been told.

Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian de Gascun said the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) would review the advice issued this week by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that everyone over 60 should wear a face mask.

Dr de Gascun said “we recommend them for people who are asymptomatic and for those who cannot maintain adequate physical distance at the moment such as on public transport”.

He said earlier there was always a reluctance to make it mandatory for people to wear a mask but he acknowledged that the uptake was not as large as they thought for people to follow the recommendation in such situations.


He said there is time to “scale up manufacturing capacity” to supply face coverings to households if there is a resurgence of coronavirus.

Dr de Gascun said there was inequity for some people who could not afford to buy their own mask and acknowledged that it could be a good idea to supply masks, while maintaining supplies of medical grade masks for healthcare workers in clinical settings.

Dr de Gascun pointed out, however, that the evidence for the wearing of cloth masks or non-medical grade masks “is not fantastic, to be honest. There’s a nice plausible hypothesis that people use that it stops the particles, that it’s trapping the virus as well. We don’t actually have great evidence in that area.”

Labour TD Duncan Smith called for the Government to supply re-usable masks to every household in the country in light of the lifting of restrictions.

Chair of the Irish Epidemiology Modelling Advisory Group Prof Philip Nolan warned however that there was a view that “if only we had testing and tracing and a face mask we could do all the other things we used to do”.

He said that the best way to suppress the virus was to adhere to the public health guidance including maintaining social distancing.

Government strategy

The strategy laid out by Government is the right strategy to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, Prof Nolan told the committee earlier on Tuesday morning.

Prof Nolan said that “different scientists have different judgments in the face of incomplete evidence”when asked about the open letter by dozens of Irish researchers calling for a policy rethink to crush Covid-19.

He said the strategy is not one of mitigation or living with an ongoing or significant levels of transmission, but of suppression.

The letter by leading scientists and epidemiologists called for stronger short-term measures to eliminate the virus.

Prof Nolan said, however, that he fully supported the recommendations of the NPHET. “I support them and they accord with my judgment. No strategy utterly insulates us from the virus.”

He told Fianna Fáil health spokesman Stephen Donnelly that there will be renewed outbreaks of Covid-19 disease across Europe which would be in “small waves.”

Prof Nolan told the committee that “the management of the second wave will be different from the first wave. There could be more targeted measures introduced to control future outbreak.”

Asked by Mr Donnelly if Irish society will be fully functioning by the end of the year, Prof Nolan said, “I don’t have a crystal ball on this and could not give a probability on the likelihood”.

“Our behaviour will continue to be modified by this virus for some time to come.”

He said that when people talk about a second wave it “gives the impression that some overwhelming second wave will wash over” society.

“It is probable that at some point in the future an incidence of the virus will increase again,” he said.

There would be new outbreaks and public health care would be required to intervene and control.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times