Covid-19: Top official warned against slow reopening of economy

Chief scientific adviser appealed for massive random virus testing regime

Swab samples: Chief scientific adviser Mark Ferguson believes the country should test 7 per cent of the population for coronavirus every day, which would allow the entire economy to reopen quickly. Photograph: Dimas Ardian/ Bloomberg

Swab samples: Chief scientific adviser Mark Ferguson believes the country should test 7 per cent of the population for coronavirus every day, which would allow the entire economy to reopen quickly. Photograph: Dimas Ardian/ Bloomberg

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The Government’s chief scientific adviser privately warned a slow easing of coronavirus restrictions would cause “terrible” economic damage, and instead proposed a massive programme of random testing be introduced.

The country should test 7 per cent of the population for coronavirus every day, which would allow the entire economy to reopen quickly, chief scientific adviser Mark Ferguson told senior Ministers in emails sent in late April.

Currently, people are referred for testing if they display symptoms of Covid-19, such as a cough or fever, or are identified as close contacts of confirmed cases.

Prof Ferguson, who is also the director of funding body Science Foundation Ireland, encouraged the Government to follow an approach set out by American Nobel prize winning economist Paul Romer.

This included a proposal to test the entire population every two weeks, amounting to 7 per cent a day, which would represent an unprecedented scaling up of testing.

Under the strategy people would be allowed to book into restaurants or other services only if they could show they had a recent negative Covid-19 test. This would allow people testing negative to return to normal life and, as a result, boost confidence in the economy.

‘Return to normality’

In an April 23rd email, Prof Ferguson said the “attractive features” of the plan would allow for “a very rapid return to normality thereby lessening long-term effects on the economy”.

The email was sent to then-taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, and then-minister for business Heather Humphreys. The correspondence was released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

The massive testing regime would prevent “the emergence of a second or third peak of infection and resultant reintroduction of restriction measures, which would have severe social and economic consequences”, Prof Ferguson said.

The proposal was “the most practical, robust, cost-effective strategy I have come across to date”, he said.

It would also mean the country could return to normal regardless of a Covid-19 vaccine development, “which may or may not occur in the future”, he said.

In a separate email to senior Department of Business officials, Prof Ferguson said the plan “is the only strategy that I’m aware of that can allow a safe but fast return”.

The chief scientific adviser said the “potential economic damage of a slow return is terrible”.

In May, the Government decided to pursue a phased plan to ease restrictions gradually and reopen the country from the national lockdown.

The Health Service Executive’s current testing regime has capacity to process 15,000 tests a day, although to date that level has not been required.

Since the start of the pandemic there have been 624,615 tests processed, and 4,740 in the last 24 hours. Staff in nursing homes undergo weekly serial testing, with testing protocols also in place for incoming hospital patients.

The proposed massive programme of frequent testing for the entire population would mean more than 340,000 tests would need to be processed a day.

In the email correspondence, Prof Ferguson said testing 7 per cent of the population every day was “feasible in a small country like Ireland”.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said its testing strategy was “informed by international evidence and practice, and the level of transmission in Ireland”.

“It will continue to focus on those areas/populations where the virus is most likely to be transmitting and where it can do most harm,” she said.

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