Risk of ‘Irish variant’ of Covid a ‘real worry’, warns Donegal GP

Dr Coyne says the rising numbers of cases in the county gives virus the potential to mutate

A Donegal GP has warned that increased Covid-19 infections in the county could give the virus the opportunity to mutate into an "Irish variant" like those seen in the UK or Brazil.

Lifford GP Dr Martin Coyne told The Irish Times he was "not worried so much about numbers and the cohort that seems to be getting infected with us, I'm just worried about the potential this gives the virus to mutate."

Donegal currently has the highest 14-day incidence rate in the State, with 251 cases per 100,000 people. Across the Border, the Derry and Strabane area is the highest in the North, with 104 cases per 100,000 over the last seven days, though the health authorities in Northern Ireland said earlier this week they believed it had plateaued.

Dr Coyne said it appeared the increase had been driven by the return of pupils to school and cases was predominantly among younger age groups.

While the numbers were a “concern”, he said, hopefully it “shouldn’t have the knock-on effect it had in January with hospital admissions and ICU.

"But it's not a reason to be relaxed about it, because every time that virus gets from A to B, that's giving that virus a chance to mutate, and that's the real worry of what's going on in India at the moment."

He said the vaccination programme was also having an effect. “I’m just finishing up a vaccination clinic so by Saturday all of our over 70s will have at least their first vaccine, so that’s a relief.”

On Friday the Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council, Rena Donaghey, and the mayor of Derry and Strabane, Brian Tierney, issued a joint statement appealing to people on both sides of the Border to "stay local" and adhere to the Covid-19 rules in place in their area as some relaxations came into force in the North.

Close-contact services such as hairdressers and barbers reopened in Northern Ireland on Friday and competitive sport and driving lessons resumed. Further easements will come into force on April 30th, when outdoor hospitality and all retail can reopen.

Ms Donaghey and Mr Tierney said the rate of infection in both council areas continued to be a concern, and people should “avoid unnecessary journeys and visits to beauty spots outside of your area and to continue to reduce your social contacts.

“We can’t become complacent and need to be aware of new variants and the fact the virus is out there and being transmitted through our communities,” they warned.

However Dr Coyne said private gatherings carried a greater risk of spreading the virus than cross-Border travel for shops or services.

“I do believe that we have to relax things, people can’t stick at this forever, so to allow somebody to travel outside their county, that’s fine, but just do it safely.

“You could be restricted to within 5km of your house but have a house party and mess everything up.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times