Nphet gives stark warning that lifting restrictions too early could cause fresh Covid wave lasting into summer

Health officials tell Government nowhere near enough protection at a population level in order to substantially relax restrictions

The Government is expected to announce plans for the restrictions following a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The Government is expected to announce plans for the restrictions following a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

The Government has been warned that lifting restrictions too early could cause another wave of Covid-19 lasting into the summer.

In a stark warning delivered to Ministers on Monday night by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), the Government was told that while the Irish vaccination programme is progressing relatively well by European standards, there is nowhere near enough protection at a population level in order to substantially relax restrictions.

However, if a four-to-eight week period of caution is observed, risks could be reduced by between 50 and 70 per cent. The advice is being considered by Government.

Meanwhile, the HSE told the Government that it would struggle to meet key healthcare goals if confronted with another wave of the disease, such as running a healthcare service catering for non-Covid needs.

Government sources suggested on Friday that there could be limited political room to depart from the public health advice, but decisions were debated on Monday evening.

A meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19, attended by the leaders of the Coalition parties - Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan of the Greens - and some other senior Ministers, took place on Monday night. Sources described the updates given to committee members from health officials as “grim”.

A key meeting of Nphet concluded on Monday afternoon, before a total of 539 cases and one death were reported on Monday evening.

The Cabinet had been on Tuesday expected to consider a phased return of outdoor activities when Ministers meet to decide on what restrictions to ease from next Monday, April 5th.

Earlier, sources said one measure per week could be relaxed as part of the Government’s new plan.

Moving in increments could minimise the risk of rapidly losing control of case numbers, which remain at a high plateau, sources believe.

“The ‘big bang’ means we could go from 600 cases a day to 2,000 cases a day in a week,” a Government source said. “It allows us to be that little bit more cautious, especially with what we’re seeing elsewhere. We’ve had a third wave, most of Europe is in their third wave, and we don’t want a fourth wave.”

This could mean that the 5km travel restriction is eased one week, the remaining school classes on another and later in April two households could meet outdoors in a park but not in a private garden.

The exact timing has yet to be decided, however. There remains concern among some in Government about reopening construction, with sources wary of the potential for intercounty travel associated with tradespersons working on different sites around the country.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland Adrian Cummins has on Monday written to Taoiseach Micheál Martin raising concerns about the potential introduction of vaccine certificates.

Mr Cummins said there had been “recent and increasing media commentary regarding the potential introduction of vaccine certificates as a means to access goods and services”.

“We must ask that businesses including frontline customer facings businesses such as those we represent in the; restaurant, café and gastropub sectors are included in any discussion or plans to introduce such legislation.

“Our members and sector have implemented and promoted all health and safety regulations and guidance since last March and are in favour of opening safely and soon but have serious concerns regarding the implementation and policing of such a vaccine certificate, as it would have implications regarding the existing Equality Acts.”

Current Level 5 restrictions were extended by the Government on February 24th and were due to last until Monday, April 5th.

There has been a total of 4,667 Covid-19 related deaths in Ireland.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has, as of midnight on Sunday March 28th, been notified of a total of 235,078 confirmed cases of coronavirus here.

Of the cases notified today, 288 are men and 249 are women, while 73 per cent are aged under 45. The median age of new cases is 32.

A total of 262 of the new cases are in Dublin; 32 are in Kildare; 30 in Westmeath; 26 in Galway; 21 in Meath; 21 in Offaly, and the remaining 147 cases are spread across 20 other counties.

As of 8am on Monday, 331 Covid-19 patients are hospitalised, of which 70 are in ICU, while there have been 19 additional hospitalisations in the past 24 hours.

As of March 26th, 786,569 doses of vaccine have been administered in Ireland, with 567,023 people having received their first dose and 219,546 their second.

The 5km travel limit for exercise is widely expected to be lifted from Easter Monday.

Government sources have mentioned expanding it to a distance of 10km, and the prospect of county-wide travel is now considered less likely.

Other measures that have been flagged include allowing two households to meet outdoor in public spaces; a return to sports training for children and youth teams, and a resumption of golf and tennis. It is also understood that Ministers are likely to push for a phased return of construction focused on house-building.

Quarantine

The general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI), Antoinette Cunningham, warned on Monday morning that any easing of the 5km travel restriction will make policing the pandemic even more challenging.

The public will think they can move more freely which “is going to make the job even more challenging,” she told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland.

Ms Cunningham also repeated a call for members of the force to be vaccinated, especially those working with mandatory quarantine. Ms Cunningham said gardaí had a “big part to play” in enforcing the Health Act 2021 and in ensuring compliance with the regulations.

She said it was her understanding that the security firm involved, along with hotel staff and members of the defence forces involved in mandatory quarantine were being vaccinated, but gardaí were not.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the vaccination and testing of all staff who are interacting directly with people in mandatory quarantine is under way.

Ms Cunningham said it was not fair to expect gardaí to attend any situation that occurred in hotels being used for mandatory quarantine and to then return to the community. There was a very high risk attending such situations, she said.

“Policing in Covid is becoming more difficult, more challenging, more dangerous.”

The Department of Health has said 75 people have booked to stay at mandatory quarantine hotels from March, while a further 50 have booked to arrive in April. Already seven people have reserved a space at a quarantine hotel for May.

On Sunday, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the “room is very narrow” for lifting Covid-19 restrictions next month. He told RTÉ’s This Week programme the Government will take a “cautious” approach examining the 5km restrictions, outdoor activity and completing the full return to school after Easter.

Childcare and schools

Meanwhile, early learning and childcare services are resuming on Monday morning for all children. Previously, the children of frontline workers and those attending under the Government’s Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme returned to childcare settings.

The Health Service Executive’s (HSE) chief clinical officer, Dr Colm Henry, has said that officials are considering a pilot scheme of antigen testing in secondary schools and universities.

However, concerns remained around the sensitivity of the rapid tests, he told Newstalk’s the Pat Kenny Show and stressed that they would not replace existing measures.

“We already deploy antigen testing for our hospitals and in outbreak settings, where we know its sensitivity is much stronger. But we also know it’s very weak in cases where people are asymptomatic.

“I’m not doubting the potential value of antigen testing, particularly in outbreaks. I’m saying that as an assurance to people that a negative test means negative by itself it doesn’t stand up.”

Dr Henry said the HSE had “more than enough” PCR testing for the settings that really need testing. He acknowledged that even PCR testing was not 100 per cent accurate, but that it had a very high efficacy rate.

The walk-in centres which opened in five locations last week were part of a “menu of options”, which would assist in identifying cases, he added.

There had been a “big take up” at the walk-in centres, with 7,500 tests in recent days showing a positivity rate of about two to three per cent.

”From here on out, we envisage these would be highly mobile – and we’ll change the location based on the advice of public health departments.”

Walk-in centres

Also under way from Monday morning, contact tracers are extending the window of tracing from two to seven days.

This will help to identify Covid-19 cases currently attributed to “community transmission”, which equate to about 20 per cent of cases, according to the HSE’s lead for testing and tracing, Niamh O’Beirne.

She told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland radio programme on Monday that now was the “right time” to extend tracing as it needs to be done when the cases are not too high.

Ms O’Beirne said the overall positivity rate across all five of the HSE’s walk-in test centres across Dublin and Offaly stood at 3 per cent, although it was slightly lower, at 2 per cent, in Tullamore and Grangegorman.

Of the asymptomatic people testing positive, 41 per cent were in the 25 to 44 age group, while there was a 5 per cent positivity rate in the 15 to 24 cohort. When announcing The Path Ahead plan on February 24th, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said 1.25 million vaccines would be administered by the end of March.

An additional 26,401 vaccine doses were administered on Friday, March 26th, bringing to 786,569 the number of doses given up to that point. Of those, 219,546 were second doses given to people who are now fully vaccinated.

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