The Path Ahead: Full facts from Nphet paint stark picture
Letter to Stephen Donnelly set out reasons why easing of Covid-19 curbs not good idea
Dr Ronan Glynn: “Ireland continues to experience a very concerning and precarious epidemiological situation.” Photograph: Julien Behal
Up until just a few days ago, some Ministers were still harbouring hopes they could unveil a slight easing of Covid-19 restrictions for a bone-weary public.
Even after this week’s Cabinet meeting at which it was agreed Level 5 would be extended until April 5th, one Minister frankly admitted they believed there would have been enough political appetite around the table to allow people to meet outdoors, allow some outdoor sports to resume, and provide for a staggered return of the construction sector.
The word “would” was used because the advice from the State’s public health team was that any such move could send out the wrong message that it is okay for family and friends to meet again, when it is not. That was the simplified message that was offered this week but the full picture given to the Government by the National Public Health Emergency Team in recent days shows how stark the situation is.
The Ministers who emerged from a meeting with Nphet last Thursday admitted the briefing had been grim and depressing. “We are really in the worst of it,” said one.
In a letter sent to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on the same day, deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn outlined a whole kaleidoscope of reasons why the easing of restrictions could not be considered .
“Ireland continues to experience a very concerning and precarious epidemiological situation. Incidence is falling but the rate of decline has slowed and daily case counts remain very high.”
Furthermore, the “indicators of mobility and contact remain low but are drifting upwards, with the average number of close contacts per adult confirmed case now at 2.4”.
Glynn said while the country is still suppressing the virus, “the situation is precarious” and the “rate of decline in incidence has slowed.”
Also worrying Nphet was the increase in the R-number to between 0.65 to 0.85. Given these facts, the situation was described as “very fragile”.
Under more downbeat modelling than previously, the team said there would still be up to 350 cases a day by mid-March and there could still be up to 400 people needing hospital care by the third week in March.
The spectre of another wave of infection was also raised. Government was warned there “remains a considerable risk that we will experience a further wave of infection if public health restrictions are eased before case numbers are reduced to much lower levels and before the vaccine rollout has been significantly advanced”. These risks would also be heightened by the Covid-19 variants, Glynn said.
The team was even downbeat about vaccinations. While there was hope they can “bring to a return of ‘normal’ life. . . it will take time before we have a sufficient level of the population vaccinated, and even then, it is not possible to know at this stage what level of protection vaccination will give”.
Because of all this, Nphet recommended “extreme caution” over the coming months. “It is critical that we do not risk the progress we have made over recent weeks, which has come at huge sacrifice to everyone.”
The imperative, they said, was to prevent a further wave until vaccinations could offer widespread protection. In the letter, Glynn also said the most vulnerable would have to be vaccinated before any significant easing of measures was considered.
While there was scope to resume in-person schooling and non-Covid healthcare, this would require all other restrictions to remain in place, the Government was told. Nphet said it was too early to advise on when or how other restrictions should be eased.
All of this uncertainty is reflected in the Government’s refreshed Covid-19 plan, The Path Ahead, which sets no dates or specific triggers for the lifting of restrictions.
The vagueness of the new framework has certainly not gone unnoticed. Labour leader Alan Kelly said “it is anything but a path ahead. Regrettably, it is a hope-and-see strategy”.