Surge ICU capacity being built up to handle ‘roaring’ growth in Covid-19 cases

Stephen Donnelly compares possible coronavirus death toll to War of Independence

The Department of Health is making preparations to build up surge ICU capacity in the hospital system because of the "roaring" growth in cases of Covid-19, according to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

He compared the possible fatality rates to those in the War of Independence.

Possible death rates for just three months range between 335 and 1,760 people, he said. “In the War of Independence about 2,300 people died ... to put it in context”.

Mr Donnelly told the Seanad on Friday “we don’t know how bad it’s going to get”.


But he said more than 200 people could be in intensive care in a few months’ time, based on the second-best scenario of new modelling by Nphet (the National Public Health Emergency Team).

In a stark warning to Senators the Minister added “we’re going to have to start building up surge capacity for ICU now in case it happens”.

Mr Donnelly said he expected 1,200 new Covid-19 cases on Friday. Later, a further 1,173 new cases were reported by the Department of Health.

The numbers in hospital have doubled in the last three weeks “and because of exponential growth they will continue to double”.

The Minister was speaking during a Seanad debate on the Health Amendment Bill which provides for domestic digital certification for those who are fully vaccinated and permits them and those who have recovered from Covid-19 to avail of indoor hospitality along with children and some staff.

He said the infection rate for 16 to 18-year-olds is the same as it was at the peak of the October wave of the virus “and the line is vertical on the page” and the same for the 19-24-year-old group.

“Thank God most of them will be fine because of their age but they won’t all be fine and many of them will get long Covid.”

‘Protecting the fearful’

The legislation was passed in a roll call vote by 39 to seven. The Bill passed in the Dáil on Wednesday after heated debate and rows over the use of provocative language. It now goes to President Michael D Higgins to be signed.

Independent Senator Sharon Keogan said to interruptions that "medical apartheid has gone from being discounted by the media as scaremongering, conspiracy theory to Government policy".

Independent Senator Ronan Mullen said "if Nphet's doom day predictions are accurate we should literally see bodies pile up in the UK over the next 10 weeks". If over 2,000 would die in Ireland at least 32,000 would in the UK with 900 in Northern Ireland, he said.

Suggesting “it’s an attempt to scare the public” he said the Government had moved from “protecting the vulnerable to protecting the fearful”.

Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield said the legislation "is not based on public health advice. It's not based on scientific advice either and it's hardly enforceable because it's incredibly light touch and I think it'll be on a nod and a wink".

Fine Gael Seanad leader Regina Doherty said there had been "illogical resistance" to antigen testing "and all the while HSE were using antigen tests to make sure their own staff were returning to work safely".

But she criticised the “jarring” messaging between Government and the Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.

Mr Donnelly said antigen testing was provided for in the Bill but would make enforcing the measures more difficult.

Insisting that pubs and restaurants were capable of enforcing the measures Mr Donnelly held up his phone displaying the Covid tracker app and at the top his QR code, which he tapped on. “It’s no more complicated than that.”

He said the sector was willing to go along with the measures because it would get tens of thousands of people back to work.

The Minister insisted there was no discrimination in the measures “but we are differentiating”. He said this applied to EU travel and he compared it to refusing alcohol to under 18s and restricting smoking to outdoors. It is not discriminatory but a public health measure to keep people safe, he said.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times