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Driving tests suspended and HSE says there's 'no rationale' for bulk-buying: Today's main Covid-19 points

As has been the case all week, there’s only one story in the headlines – stay up to date with the coronavirus here.

Updated Mar 13th 2020, 6:10 AM

AN “UNPRECEDENTED”, “DRASTIC” action was taken in Ireland yesterday, to close educational and cultural institutions, and to advise workers to work from home where possible for the next two weeks.

Schools, universities, and cultural institutions are closed from now until 29 March; it will be assessed whether this needs to be extended later. Sporting events including basketball, GAA and soccer games and events in Ireland were postponed or cancelled.

This announcement was given by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar from Washington, where a number of St Patrick’s Day events with US officials were cancelled amid Covid-19 fears.

His emotive address was followed by a briefing from the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Minister for Health Simon Harris, and Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys also advised people not to stockpile – as shops will remain open. Despite this, shops saw shelves cleared in the afternoon and evening – and there’s some evidence of this continuing today.

The CEO of the HSE Paul Reid said that there was “no rationale” for doing this, and said it was unhelpful and “disruptive”.

The focus for the HSE now is to increase the level of testing among people who have Covid-19 symptoms. 

Here are the main points:

  • A further 20 cases of the virus have been confirmed this evening – bringing the total number of cases here to 90
  • Another nine people were diagnosed with the virus in the North – meaning there are 119 people on the island of Ireland with coronavirus
  • Ireland is now in the ‘delay’ phase of trying to control the virus, to try to help the healthcare system to cope with the spread
  • The HSE is expanding community testing. Anyone showing symptoms of the Covid-19 virus is being asked to self-isolate and to contact their GP (by phone) to assess whether they should be tested
  • The first cases of community transmission have been confirmed in Northern Ireland
  • Those who travel back from Spain or Italy are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days
  • Garda Commissioner Drew Harris announced a number of measures the force is taking, including asking retiring Gardaí to stay on, and 325 new recruits
  • Jim O’Callaghan has asked that all court services close, after an announcement was made by the Courts Service that it would be “business as usual”
  • People will not need to sign on at Intreo Centres until further notice, the Department of Social Protection has said
  • The Road Safety Authority announced it is suspending driving tests until 29 March
  • Ryanair and Aer Lingus have gotten rid of flight change fees for a period due to Covid-19, if people need to rearrange plans
  • Trócaire has cancelled public outreach activities for its Lenten Appeal
  • SuperValu said it might have to impose restrictions on the amount of essential goods being purchased at its stores “out of fairness to more vulnerable customers”
  • The National Transport Authority says it has witnessed a reduction of between 15-20% in passenger number on public transport in recent days
  • The banks are working on a plan to ensure payments continue and ATMs work
  • ISME has called on supports and financial aid to help small businesses
  • Ministers Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin have met with the Taoiseach to secure immediate measures which would provide relief to tourism businesses
  • There are 20 cases in Northern Ireland, out of a total of 590 cases in the UK
  • London’s St Patrick’s Day parade is now cancelled. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that “key performers and parade participants are no longer able to take part due to the ongoing threat of coronavirus”
  • Kissing the Blarney Stone is now banned 
  • Anyone returning from the Cheltenham Festival will not have to self isolate immediately afterwards
  • The Department of Agriculture has reminded people that there are “no food safety implications arising from Covid-19″, but warned that there could be a “significant economic impacts for Irish business” as a result of the crisis. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Health Minister Simon Harris said that the government was advising Irish citizens to avoid all non essential travel to Spain, and that anyone returning from Spain or Italy will be asked to restrict their movements for two weeks.

Harris said that “there’s something happening in Ireland that’s not happening in all countries” called contact tracing, that Harris said he wasn’t sure had been done effectively in other countries.

“We’re lowering the bar for testing,” to include new onset fever and respiratory difficulties, the HSE’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Colm Henry.

“It’s important to emphasise that there are elements that we can control and that we cannot control,” he said, asking people to take personal protective measures and social distancing measures taken last night.

“Everybody has a role to play,” he said.

The court service has indicated that it would be “business as usual” in courtrooms, but gatherings would be limited to a maximum of 50 people.

A member of the Bar Council of Ireland Irene Sands told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke programme that the reality of that decision is that there are court staff, judges, cleaners, barristers, solicitors, prison officers, making the government’s decision to advise social distancing “very difficult”. 

She said that a colleague had remarked that “court rooms are generally akin to Irish public transport where we’re crammed in together, the only difference is we’re wearing 17th century ceremonial gear,” adding that social distancing wasn’t possible in district courts.

There were 250 cases listed in Drogheda District Court on one day alone, she added to illustrate the point. “It flies in the face of what the government has asked us to do, which is to limit the spread,” she said.

Elsewhere in the world:

  • Italy has recorded over 1,000 deaths from the virus; around a fifth of the world total. There are around 15,000 cases in the country, and 130,000 cases worldwide
  • 79 people have died after contracting Covid-19 in France and there have been 3,661 cases of the virus there – up from 2,876 yesterday
  • Nine Chinese experts and several tonnes of medical aid have arrived on a special flight to Italy to help fight its outbreak
  • Scotland recorded its first death from Covid-19 as an older woman with pre-exiting health conditions passed away in Lothian
  • A London Underground driver who works on the Tube’s Jubilee Line, has tested positive for coronavirus
  • EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned against imposing unilateral travel restrictions to fight the coronavirus epidemic, as some EU states have done
  • The EU has offered member states “maximum flexibility” to boost spending and subsidies beyond normal rules to help fight the Covid-19 coronavirus.
  • Kenya announced its first confirmed case of coronavirus, saying a woman who returned from the US tested positive for the illness in Nairobi
  • Justin Trudeau’s wife has tested positive for coronavirus Covid-19
  • This is the last day of Cheltenham, which continued despite other sporting events being cancelled. Tomorrow’s Wales-Scotland Six Nations match was cancelled this afternoon

Prevention 

Covid-19 is spread through droplets caused by sneezing or coughing, or by touching a surface that someone has sneezed or coughed on within a particular time frame. It cannot be passed through your skin, and it’s thought that it’s unlikely to be airborne.

It may take up to 14 days for symptoms to show. 

The best ways to protect yourself and others from the virus are to wash hands properly and often, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue/your sleeve when coughing and sneezing, and put used tissues in a bin and wash your hands. 

Symptoms of Covid-19 include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Breathing difficulties.

Further resources:

  • The HSE: Official advice on the coronavirus in Ireland. This is being updated based on the number of confirmed cases and how the virus spreads in Ireland.
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs: Official advice on where to avoid travelling to. Also a resource for those who are abroad.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO): The UN agency on global public health publishes statements and daily situation reports based on the latest data.
  • European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC): The EU agency on the number of cases, deaths and how it’s spreading in Europe. 
  • The Johns Hopkins University map: A heat map of the confirmed cases across the world.

A helpline for older people who are concerned about the coronavirus has been launched by Alone. The number is 0818 222 024, and it’s open Mon-Fri, 8am-8pm.

With reporting by Garreth MacNamee

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