Ireland can achieve zero Covid without sealing country – campaign group

Scientists, academics launch campaign calling on Government to introduce strategy

It is not necessary to seal Ireland off from the rest of the world to achieve zero Covid, a campaign group seeking to eliminate the virus from the island has said.

On Monday, the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group (ISAG), a multidisciplinary group of scientists, academics, and researchers, launched a public campaign calling on the Government to introduce a zero Covid strategy when dealing with the pandemic.

The group said zero Covid did not mean there would be no cases of the virus on the island, but that there would be no cases arising in the community from unknown sources.

Hospital Report

Speaking at the online launch of the campaign, Prof Anthony Staines, professor in health systems at Dublin City University, said a zero Covid approach is "not about sealing the island off from the outside world".

“Even if it were possible – and it isn’t possible – it would be a very bad idea and it is not required to achieve zero,” he said.

Prof Staines said the zero Covid strategy would require staying with “significant restrictions probably for as long as the Government plans right now”, until around the end of April.

Following that, it would require controlling the borders, providing fair ways for people living at the borders to live their lives and it means quarantining people coming in from airports.

It would also require, Prof Staines said, regional public health units being “pushed” and financed to maximise the tracking and tracing of remaining cases to control outbreaks.

“The gain of all of this is we get our economy back to something closer to normal for the vast majority of summer. The alternative is to wait until winter, perhaps November, when vaccination would have reached a level at which the virus is under sufficient control to open up again,” he said.

‘Sentinel’ zone

With regard to the Northern Ireland Border, Julien Mercille, an associate professor in Geography at University College Dublin, acknowledged the border counties were at a "disadvantage", but said outbreaks could be managed through specific checkpoints and zones.

“Wherever there are cases, you need to contain those outbreaks with red zones. We would put Garda checkpoints around and hope it wouldn’t spread anywhere else,” he said.

Out side of the red zones would be buffer zones, and then a “sentinel” zone outside of that again, which is where Covid-infection is measured to see if it’s spreading out of the red zone.

Mercille said under this plan, trucks and trade will continue with designated truck stops so truckers don’t interact too much with other people when in the South.

Aoife McLysaght, a professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin, said the country can get the Covid numbers down again, but "we need the Government to their part to keep it down" through these measures.

Dr Gabriel Scally said the country was at a "crossroads", adding that the " true public health border is the shore".

The call for zero Covid has become more popular in recent weeks, particularly among opposition TDs. However, members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) have expressed scepticism about its feasibility .

Prof Philip Nolan, chair of Nphet's epidemiological modelling advisory group, last week said it was an "utterly false promise" to suggest we could go to Level 0 or Level 1 in the "space of weeks or months".

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, said zero Covid would be very difficult to apply "in a realistic way in an environment like ours".

Ireland is a small economy dependent on its links with Europe and "we simply couldn't realistically seal the borders of this country and stop people moving in and out", Dr Holohan said.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times