Government warned of ‘further Covid wave’ risk as society reopens

Nphet letter came ahead of Cabinet decision to approve easing of restrictions

Tayto Park reopens to the public: Five-month-old Anna with her mum, Claire Monaghan, from Duleek, Co Meath, say hello to the tiger as the easing of Covid-19 restrictions allowed the park to welcome visitors back on Friday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Tayto Park reopens to the public: Five-month-old Anna with her mum, Claire Monaghan, from Duleek, Co Meath, say hello to the tiger as the easing of Covid-19 restrictions allowed the park to welcome visitors back on Friday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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The Government was warned of the risk of the “significant impact of a further wave” of Covid-19 infections if social contacts increase too much before vaccines take full effect.

The warning from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) came ahead of this week’s Cabinet decision to approve plans for the significant reopening of the economy and society over the next two months.

While insisting the plans are low to moderate risk, Government figures including Taoiseach Micheál Martin have since outlined their readiness to intervene to halt the reopening if the virus spirals out of control.

The easing of restrictions, such as the return of inter-county travel, non-essential retail and construction, will be closely monitored ahead of a second phase or reopening in June involving the hospitality industry.

Nphet’s letter to Government warned of a “significant impact” from a further wave of infection if social mixing becomes too high ahead of “a sufficient proportion of the population being protected through vaccination”.

Modelling projections in the letter also showed that increased mixing could lead to between 1,100 and 7,000 cases a day, and in a worst-case scenario, 10,000 admissions to hospital.

Conversely, it showed sticking to public health advice would allow vaccines to build up and avoid further surges later in the summer, even if social mixing increased later on.

‘Pushing the boundaries’

In his letter, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan also warned people are “gradually pushing the boundaries” of public health measures, with compliance at its lowest level since last summer “with a particularly steep fall in recent weeks”.

The Government’s reopening plans were based on advice from Nphet.

The mood in Government on how the coming weeks will play out was last night described as “nervous”.

One senior source said “we’re placing faith” in Nphet, which has “been on the cautious side of right on most things”.

On Friday the Taoiseach said the easing of restrictions in May would be cautious and gradual. “We will not be afraid to intervene if there are worrying trends in this,” he said.

His remarks echoed those of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar who warned earlier there could be an “emergency brake” on reopening.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said yesterday he would be “getting up every single day through May nervous” due to the volatility of the situation.

“The advice we have is that if we embrace these measures it’s low to moderate risk but if we go beyond them... we could have a problem.”

Donegal

Mr Donnelly separately suggested that people in their 40s may get Covid-19 vaccinations at the same time as those in their 50s under rollout options being explored by officials this weekend.

Nphet yesterday highlighted Donegal, Dublin and Kildare as places with high incidence of the virus.

There are clear examples of non-compliance across Donegal, said Dr Holohan. “The kind of things that even the dogs on the street in Donegal know shouldn’t be happening.”

He refused to rule out a differential approach that could see areas with high incidence excluded from any future easing of restrictions.

A further four deaths of Covid-19 patients were reported by Nphet. This brings to 4,903 the total number of deaths in the pandemic.

Nphet also reported 545 confirmed cases of the disease, bringing to 248,870 the total number of cases in the Republic.

Elsewhere, the cabinet’s committee on economic recovery is to meet next week as the Government begins to plan the next phase of the pandemic, including the future of business and income supports.

Senior Government sources believe some companies whose turnover increases will naturally become ineligible for the schemes as soon as July – but for other businesses and sectors, help will be needed until this winter, and possibly into next year.

Sources indicated among the most significant issues will be whether tapering is based on turnover, or sector, and the politically contentious issue of cutting Pandemic Unemployment Payment rates.

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