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Varadkar says circuit break can't be ruled out to control Covid as sources say plans 'need to be worked up'

The idea had been mooted recently for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Government slapped down NPHET's Level 5 advice, but considerations to short, sharp circuit break restrictions are being considered.
Government slapped down NPHET's Level 5 advice, but considerations to short, sharp circuit break restrictions are being considered.
Image: Sam Boal

THE IDEA OF ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown cannot be ruled out, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told his parliamentary party meeting this evening. 

The Tánaiste told his Fine Gael party colleagues that it is inevitable that cases will rise over the next couple of weeks, stating that this has always been the likely scenario heading into winter.

However, he said while cases are rising, it is different to the previous wave because hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths have not seen a surge.

The Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting was also told that a circuit breaker was not contained in the current government roadmap for Living with Covid-19, and that would need to be planned for.

Other senior government sources have also said that such circuit break restrictions are “not off the table”.

The idea of a ‘circuit breaker’ is for a short, sharp period of tightened restrictions intended to curb a rise in coronavirus cases. The temporary lockdown in New Zealand is seen by some as circuit break that gave contact tracers the time to get on top of case numbers.

It has been mooted recently for Northern Ireland in order to help lower Covid-19 numbers there, with Scotland also considering such a move.

Following Monday’s meeting between the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan and the Taoiseach, the talk in government circles was that NPHET tried to bounce the government into a circuit breaker situation without consultation.

When asked if such a move could be a runner in Ireland, a senior government source said: 

“It’s not off the table if the situation deteriorates and we hit criteria for Level 5.”

Another said: “Nothing off the table.”

They added that “everything is being monitored” and there is “continuous assessment” of the virus situation.

“We may yet have to do a circuit break,” added another, stating the circuit break options “need to be worked up” and “thought through”.

NPHET’s plan ‘not thought through’

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told RTÉ presenter Claire Byrne on Monday that what NPHET was proposing in the Level 5 advice was a circuit breaker. 

He said it had not been tried anywhere in Europe, including some countries that have much higher cases that Ireland.

The “short, sharp shock” is a bid to stop the transmission of the disease suddenly, explained Varadkar.

However, he said he didn’t believe NPHET’s idea “had been thought through properly”.

Varadkar said a number of questions were posed to the NPHET team at the meeting on Monday, such as how long would it last for? What would happen if it didn’t work? Would the strategy be abandoned?

He said they also asked the public health experts if the schools would remain open, stating that the Taoiseach and ministers were not sure they could.

Varadkar said NPHET had not contemplated any of the questions.

“We need to plan for this kind of thing,” he said. 

He added that government would need to know what to say to people who would have to get the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and it would have to be organised with the Department of Social Protection.

“If we go for something like that… something experimental, it would require proper thought, proper consultation, and a Plan B if it doesn’t work and NPHET didn’t have any of that,” said Varadkar. 

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However, it is understood that those possible options for circuit breaks are being worked up by government.

Yesterday, while there was speculation that Holohan was meeting with the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste at Government Buildings, it is believed he was meeting the country’s top civil servant, Martin Fraser. 

Fraser is the Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach and also chairs the civil service sub-committee group which filters NPHET advice for issues around practicalities before it makes its way to Cabinet for consideration. 

The group was established as an extra layer of oversight so as the health advice and all its implications could be considered.

The term ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown originates from Singapore, where it tried the measure in April during the height of the first wave of coronavirus.

The North’s Minister for Finance Conor Murphy has said the Northern Executive might have to look at circuit breaker restrictions, adding it would be preferable if this happened on an all-island basis.

According to The Irish Times, the Executive is understood to be considering a two- or three-week lockdown around Halloween at the end of the month.

While senior sources here have said it is something being considered, whether it works in other countries which are implementing such circuit breaks is something being watched closely.

While the idea might be under consideration there are big reservations about it, and the damage it could also cause.

Any move to adopt a circuit break here would have to short and sharp, most likely for a maximum period of two weeks. What such a move would mean for the government’s roadmap and where it fits in would also have to clarified, but sources indicate that if cases continue to rise such a measure may be on the horizon.

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