Coronavirus Q&A: Where are we now? What are the numbers? Where do I stand on travel?

We answer some of the many questions arising during the Covid-19 crisis

Social distance queue lines installed by the staff at Teddy’s Ice Cream on Dun Laoghaire Pier on Sunday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Social distance queue lines installed by the staff at Teddy’s Ice Cream on Dun Laoghaire Pier on Sunday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Where are we now?

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said on Monday morning we are living through “totally unprecedented times”. Things are changing at head spinning speed and there is no sign of things settling down as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the world.

What do we know?

It is hard to keep on top of it all. There is – by any measure – an “information overload”. Yesterday evening alone there was major anouncement by Regina Doherty of a refund scheme for employers forced to let as many as 140,000 staff who have lost their jobs as a result of the infection. Simon Coveney announced plans to bring 20,000 Irish people home from Spain. Simon Harris outlined why pubs have to close. Then there are the travel restrictions, the numbers of confirmed cases and all the rest.

Where can we start?

Okay, what we will see from today is an intensification of testing for coronavirus as the number of cases in the State jumps. The health service announced that GPs will be able to order tests through their IT system and steps are being made to ensure sufficient testing facilities will be available to meet the rising demand.

How is this different to what has been happening?

Up until this week, testing was carried out at people’s homes through the National Ambulance Service. However, while at-home tests will continue, the HSE is also establishing a number of community testing sites across the country. These sites will be attendance by referral only, meaning individuals cannot simply show up and receive a test. “Members of the public who have normal cold and flu like symptoms or who believe they may have been in contact with Covid-19 are being asked to self-isolate and to ring their GP, who will then be in a position to triage patients appropriately and order a test where indicated,” a statement by the HSE said.

What are the numbers like now?

There were 40 new cases of Covid-19 in the Republic confirmed on Sunday evening, the highest daily total since the State’s first case was confirmed on February 29th. This has brought the total number of cases in the State to 169.

Where are the new cases?

25 of the new cases were in the east of the country, nine in the west and six in the south. There were 16 new cases in Northern Ireland, bringing the total in the North to 45 and to 214 overall on the island of Ireland.

And the pubs have closed?

The vast majority of them have, certainly. On Sunday the Government called for the closure of the country’s 7,000 pubs from last night until at least March 29th in a move which was considered essential ahead of the traditionally busy St Patrick’s Day bank holiday.

What about the restaurants?

On Monday morning the chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, Adrian Cummins, appealed to the government to shut down restaurants in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19. “We want the government to tell us to close,” he told Morning Ireland. He explained that unless there was a blanket closure of restaurants some would stay open. Restaurants were now one of the only areas where people can gather, but social distancing won’t work in such circumstances, he said. This sector needs to be shut down in the best interest of public health, he said. “This needs to happen, this morning, this day.”

That will leave a lot of people out of work?

It will. In fact as many as 50,000 people in the pub trade were out of work overnight in what one industry representative said was the “biggest loss of jobs in the history of the State”. There is at least 70,000 people employed in the restaurant sector. And then there are the 20,000 childcare workers who have also lost their jobs – at least in the short term.

What should people who have lost their jobs do next?

First off you will need to go to the Department of Social Protection website and download the necessary forms to apply for the emergency Covid-19 payment. The payment should be processed immediately. Then people should apply for jobseekers’ benefit within six weeks in order to transition to the normal scheme. The number to call is 1890 800 024 although it may not be set up until Monday afternoon. The Government is also asking employers – if they can – to continue to pay employees €203 so that nobody will fall into financial hardship in the short term because of this unprecedented situation. Employers will be able to reclaim that money from the Department in time. Banks have been asked to assist with flexibility and short term loans.

What is happening in the North?

The North’s Department of Health has advised people with “mild symptoms” such as a new persistent cough and/or fever to stay at home and self-isolate for seven days. It said in such cases testing would not be required. An unnamed mother of a child in Co Armagh is threatening legal action to compel the closure of all schools in Northern Ireland, which unlike in the Republic remain open. Solicitor Darragh Mackin of Belfast firm Phoenix Law, who is representing the woman, said the departments of education and health in the North have been put on notice of an impending emergency judicial review.

What is happening elsewhere in the world?

In Europe more than 100 million people are now living under lockdown as governments scramble to curb the pandemic. France, Spain and the Netherlands were the latest to shut down all but essential services and urge citizens to stay at home as the World Health Organisation announced Europe had become the centre of the global outbreak. Italy’s death toll rose by 368 in just 24 hours yesterday.

What is happening in the US?

America’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), meanwhile, has recommended that large events and mass gatherings of more than 50 people should be cancelled or postponed for eight weeks, amid fears that coronavirus is spreading in the United States. In updated guidance issued on Sunday evening, the national health institute cited conferences, festivals, parades, and weddings as examples of such gatherings. Schools, higher education institutes and businesses are not included it said.

What if I am in Spain?

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney called on Irish tourists in Spain who want to fly home to do so by midnight on Thursday after a plan was agreed with airlines and Spanish authorities. Mr Coveney, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs on Sunday held talks with his Spanish counterpart as well as the chief executives of Ryanair and Aer Lingus. “We have an orderly plan in place with Ryanair and Aer Lingus supported by the Spanish government,” he said.

What will happen to those returning home from Spain?

People flying home from Spain will be met by health officials who will give them advice and they they will be advised to restrict their movements.

How can I stay safe?

The most important thing is to keep washing your hands. Do this every time you come home. Do it before you do anything. Do it for at least 20 seconds – with soap and water. If you are not in a position to wash you hands when you are out and about, then you can use hand sanitisers with 60 per cent minimum alcohol content. The Covid-19 virus enters the body via mucous membranes such as the eyes, nose and mouth so if you touch your face after thoroughly washing your hands, you are unlikely to give the virus a chance to take hold.

If you are in a public space – on a train, in a cafe – the most important thing to remember is to use a hand sanitiser after touching any shared surfaces. Handling money has a similar risk to contact with other materials – such as elevator buttons, door handles or bus poles – that are used by a large number of people.

What else?

You can clean your phone. They go with us everywhere. So wipe the phone, front and back with an alcohol fueled wipe and then when that is done get a dry cotton bud which should be used clean the fiddly areas like the microphone and camera

Okay, back to travel?

What travel? Countries are shutting down from within and shutting their borders in a desperate attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19. Travel bans are being imposed, enforced periods of quarantine on those arriving in airports and ports are being implemented, airlines are grounding fleets, and tour operators, hotels and everyone operating in the hospitality sector are struggling to cope with what is now a nightmare scenario.

What is our Government saying?

Over the weekend the Department of Foreign Affairs advised against all non-essential travel to Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Malta, Poland, Slovakia. This is in addition to earlier advice warning against non-essential travel to Spain, no travel to Italy and exercising caution when going to other EU countries.

Anything else?

Yes. All Irish tourists returning from any part of Italy or Spain will be asked to “restrict their movements for two weeks”.

What is happening across Europe?

Italy remains a no-go area. France and Spain joined Italy in imposing lockdowns on tens of millions of people. Spain has declared a 15-day state of emergency to combat the epidemic in Europe’s second-worst-affected country. France shut shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities from Sunday. Norway has closed all borders, airports and ports from 8am on Monday. Poland is closing its borders and denying foreigners entry unless they live in Poland or have personal ties there. Other countries are imposing restrictions of varying degrees of severity.

What about the airlines?

Ryanair has “severely” reduced flights to/from Spain, the Balearic Islands and Canary Islands from midnight tonight until midnight on Thursday. It has also cancelled all scheduled services to and from Poland from until the end of March.

What else?

Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair have offered passengers the opportunity to change bookings without incurring a change fee due to coronavirus. The Aer Lingus concession applies to people with flights booked between now and May 31st. Passengers have until March 25th to change their bookings to a different date or route of their choice. Fare differences may apply.

What about the US? What has it been up to?

US president Donald Trump has extended his country’s travel ban to include Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as most other countries across Europe. Ireland’s open border with Britain was a key reason for including the country in the travel ban. In a presidential proclamation released on Saturday night, the White House noted “the Republic of Ireland has an open border with the United Kingdom in that persons can generally move freely between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom”. It also noted the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) had determined the Republic of Ireland is experiencing “ongoing sustained person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2”.

When do the travel restrictions come into effect?

They take effect at 4am on Tuesday (midnight US time) and will apply to all travellers who have visited one of the prohibited countries in the previous 14 days. US citizens, green card holders, and certain categories of visa holders are exempt, though they must re-enter the United States through 13 designated airports where they will be screened.

I have a trip booked in the days or weeks or months ahead? What should I do?

Pay attention to the travel advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and other relevant sources. If an official advisory against travel is in place then people who have booked independent holidays and have travel insurance to that location could be able to claim for any losses they are likely to incur. With advisories in place, people who have booked with tour operators should also be able to process refunds or reschedule trips.

And if my flight is cancelled?

According to the European Consumer Centre Ireland (ECC Ireland), a natural occurrence such as Covid-19 that causes travel disruption is considered “extraordinary circumstances” outside the control of a transport provider, such as an airline. Consequently, compensation will not apply. For air travel, according to EU Regulation 261, passengers on cancelled flights may be entitled to have their journey either rerouted to the final holiday destination or refunded. If a land or sea journey is cancelled, passengers are entitled to rerouting or a refund.

I have a package booked to an area in lockdown. What do I do?

For package holidays involving a journey to, or a stay in, areas affected by travel restrictions due to the virus, consumers may have the right to terminate the booking contract without paying a termination fee. This applies only to unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances that may pose a significant risk to human health and prevent consumers from making use of or reaching the destination of their booked holiday, as agreed in the travel contract.

I am heading to an area where travel is not explicitly being warned against. But I don’t want to go. Where do I stand?

Airlines and tour operators are changing their rules in light of the unprecedented times we are living through. Many are offering would be tourists to alter dates at no or minimal cost. If consumers choose to cancel their holiday to an area where no emergency measures have been declared, that is their right, but the holiday cancellation is, of course, strictly within the limits of their booking contract. Refunds may be possible, but that is by no means certain. And if passengers cancel flights voluntarily they are entitled to a full refund of airport taxes as the cancellation takes place before the flight check-in operation. But it is worth bearing in mind that admin fees imposed by airlines often make such refunds pitifully small.

Should I have travel insurance?

Always. But it might be too late to get cover for an area badly impacted by Covid-19. Ensure your policy covers cancellations as a result of official warnings from government not to travel to a destination. But timing is crucial here. Mapfre, one of the biggest travel insurance underwriters in the State, says that if a policy covers a Government recommendation to avoid a country or area, a claim will be considered only if that recommendation is in place within 48 hours of a person’s intended departure.

Do I need to know anything else?

If you are travelling anywhere in the EU in the months ahead and do not have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or think the one you do have may have expired, then get it sorted. The card gives you access to public health services at no cost. Don’t ever pay for the card. Some sites will try charging for the service, but it is free through the official site, ehic.ie.

There has been panic buying in shops. Should I be concerned?

There was a huge amount of panic buying in shops as the measures were rolled out with many staples including rice, pasta, tinned goods and toilet paper disappearing. Almost every politician, retailer and expert has stressed that shops and supply chains will remain open and there is no need to panic-buy.

Why are people so panicked?

It is a natural response to an unnatural situation. And of course once some people start panic buying everyone feels like they should too. Media and social media images of empty shelves are not helping. It is important to remember that shelves will be restocked every evening and restocking will continue into the future.

What about buses and trains and planes?

Public transport will continue to operate as normal – or at least as normal as can be expected in what are extraordinary times. According to officials, all the other measures being introduced mean that there is likely to be a significant drop in demand for public transport services. People can still fly to other countries. Whether or not they want to is another thing entirely.

Does all this mean I don’t have to go to work?

No, it doesn’t. People are being encouraged to continue to go to work and people who can work from home are being encouraged to do so and we have been asked to minimise social interaction where possible.

Anything else cancelled?

Almost everything. Sport in Ireland – and almost everywhere else – has come to a complete stop until at least the end of the month. All concerts and plays have gone too as have confirmations and Masses. The Catholic Church has asked that funerals be limited to fewer than 100 people and, while Masses are going ahead, they are likely to be scaled back.