Coronavirus: Avoid visiting friends’ homes, de Gascun says ahead of lockdown easing

NTA says bus, train and tram services will continue to operate reduced service on Monday

NTA said any anticipated increase in passenger numbers would be ‘closely monitored’ and ‘enhanced daily cleaning’ would continue to take place. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

People should continue to avoid visiting friends’ homes and only socialise in outdoor, public locations, the director of the national virus reference laboratory Dr Cillian de Gascun said on Saturday.

From Monday, the State will begin the first stage of lifting the Covid-19 restrictions which have brought commercial and social life to a halt since March.

Under this first phase of re-opening the country, groups of four people may meet outdoors once they observe social distancing, according to Government guidelines.

However, Dr de Gascun urged people not to become complacent about social distancing when meeting friends and warned that gathering in people’s gardens could lead to visitors using bathroom and kitchen facilities.

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He also cautioned against using people’s glasses or cutlery when visiting friends.

“It’s just adding additional risk,” Dr De Gascún told RTÉ’s Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadra programme.

“If you’re handing me a beer that’s fine, it can go straight into the bin or you can leave it on the wall… but if you’re giving me utensils or delph from your house, I’m seeding the virus on it.”

People should avoid interactions over 15 minutes and not meet multiple groups of people in one day, he said. He also advised that people restrict their social interactions to a small circle of friends and family in the coming weeks.

Dr de Gascun said it was “likely” there would be an increase in cases following the lifting of restrictions due to people’s movement but that the full impact would not become clear for at least five days.

“It’s going to be week two by the time we see what effect lifting restrictions has had. That’s why we wanted a three week period so we can analyse the first two weeks.”

“The only way we can prevent people dying is by quenching virus activity in the community. So the community really is where everything starts and that’s where we want people to stay at home and minimize their interactions because any increase in cases in the community will have a knock on effect to hospitalisation.”

Prof Gerry Killeen from UCC’s school of biological earth and environmental sciences, who has worked on malaria transmission control and methods to combat the Zika virus, said it was “absolutely” too soon to be lifting restrictions and that they should remain in place until the end of the summer or early autumn.

International data indicates the death rate in Italy and New York is “still the tip of the iceberg of what would happen if we just let this epidemic rip”, he said.

Prof Killeen cautioned that while testing and treatment was a vital part of the response to the virus, it would not hold back the spread of the pandemic.

Public transport

The National Transport Authority (NTA) has said it will continue to operate a revised timetable for bus, train and tram transport services from next Monday with extra capacity to be added across public transport as required.

All passengers are advised to wear face coverings when using public transport from next week following Government advice that people use facemasks in crowded indoor locations and when on public transportation as restrictions are lifted.

Asked why the wearing of masks on public transport had not been made compulsory, Dr de Gascun said certain people may have problems wearing face coverings because of breathing difficulties or allergies while others may need to see people’s mouths for lip reading.

Dr Holohan warned on Friday that “we cannot regard face coverings as some sort of magic shield . . . It’s a supplement to the other measures we are recommending.”

“This is an additional hygiene measure, it’s not a magic bullet for this disease, and that has to be understood.”

NTA chief executive Anne Graham urged people to only use public transport if their “journey is essential” and to otherwise considering cycling or walking to their destination where feasible.

“If public transport is their only option, they should follow public health guidance when travelling,” Ms Graham said.

The NTA said any anticipated increase in passenger numbers would be “closely monitored” and that “enhanced daily cleaning” would continue to take place including the daily sanitising of frequently touched surfaces on board all vehicles and at depots and terminal points across the country.

Almost all buses, trains and trams are now receiving at least one additional cycle of cleaning during the day, a statement from the transport authority said.

The NTA said it would publish proposals “shortly” around the provision of enhanced public transport services in line with the Government’s roadmap for reopening society and that any decisions would be guided by the National Public Health Emergency Team and advice from the chief medical officers.

The deaths of a further 16 people from Covid-19 were confirmed by the National Public Health Emergency Team on Friday night as well as an additional 129 cases.

There has been anxiety in Government that people will “descend on hardware stores and garden centres in large numbers” once the rules are relaxed on Monday, resulting in a rise in rates of infection.

At a press conference in Government Buildings on Friday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – flanked by Minister for Health Simon Harris, Minister for Business Heather Humphreys and chief medical officer Tony Holohan – said it was a “calculated evidence-based risk to ease the lockdown”.

The first phase of the reopening of the country will see construction and other outdoor work permitted, some retail outlets such as hardware – but not homeware – shops allowed to open their doors. Retailers expressed disappointment at the late exclusion of homeware stores but Mr Harris said “now is not the time to decide I’m going to dicky up the house”.

Dublin City Council has confirmed that from Monday, allotments, car parks associated with outdoor amenities, tennis courts and golf courses at Silloge and Tolka valley will re-open.

The causeway road to the Bull Island Nature Reserve will re-open to vehicles along with a new dedicate cycleway while the number of outdoor staff at work across all service areas will increase. Arrangements are also being made for people returning to work in construction, said the council.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

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