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Explainer: What did Leo Varadkar mean when he spoke about 'cocooning' the ill and elderly?

The Taoiseach spoke about the plan last night.

1456 Covid 19 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation yesterday evening. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

LAST NIGHT TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar made an unprecedented St. Patrick’s Day address to the nation, stating that the country would “prevail” over the coronavirus crisis.

During his speech, Varadkar made reference to some of the difficult measures the public is being asked to adapt to control the spread of the outbreak.

One such plan he mentioned was “cocooning”. Here’s what he said: 

At a certain point… we will advise the elderly and people who have a long-term illness to stay at home for several weeks. We are putting in place the systems to ensure that if you are one of them, you will have food, supplies and are checked on. We call this ‘cocooning’ and it will save many lives… particularly the most vulnerable… the most precious in our society.It’s going to be very difficult to stay apart from our loved ones. Most grandparents just want to give their grandkids a hug and a kiss – but as hard as this is… we need to keep our physical distance to stop the virus.

At present, these measures are not in place but Varadkar was preparing people for the likelihood that they would be introduced at some point. So what exactly is meant by cocooning? 

Essentially, cocooning is the actions taken by others to support the people who are being asked to reduce their social interactions. In this case, it is elderly and people with long-term illnesses who will need to be cocooned. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme today, the RCSI’s Professor Samuel McConkey explained what cocooning will entail.

It’s when people particularly vulnerable to a condition like Covid-19 get extra special help from other people around them to help to protect them from even getting the disease. So it’s a little bit akin to self-isolation except it’s not just the self that’s doing it, it’s others around are helping with that.

“As we actually have been doing in Ireland, many of us are helping others who are in isolation to get the groceries and to maybe get some food and help them with the practical realities of daily life, so cocooning is, for others to help the more vulnerable.”

McConkey added that this does not necessarily mean that those being “cocooned” must stay indoors the entire time. 

“Not necessarily in their homes but certainly socially distant from others. So going out into the garden into the wind in the rain, as we all do is probably fine and perhaps going for a walk completely more than two metres from others and not touching surfaces is fine. So it’s not necessarily at home it’s more the social distancing than the sort of geographic separation in a home.”

Gardaí are expected to play an important role in the cocooning process, with Deputy Commissioner John Twomey explaining on Monday that the force is seeking to hear from vulnerable people so they could provide assistance when required. 

“As a community at this time we need more than ever to support the most vulnerable in our society, particularly our elderly and isolated. An Garda Síochána has always worked closely with our communities and we continue to do so in these extraordinary times,” Twomey said.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty also spoke about cocooning this morning, saying: “We need to make sure that we look after our mams and dads and grandparents in the days and weeks to come”.

She added that her colleague Minister for Rural & Community Development Michael Ring would be looking to “shore up all of the people that he has in the community and voluntary sector to help”. 

Have they been talking about cocooning elsewhere? 

The British government has previously confirmed that it would at some point be asking people over 70 to remain in their homes to halt the spread of the virus. 

British Prime Minister spoke about this plan on Monday, saying it would involve these people being “largely shielded from social contact for around 12-weeks”. 

He did not specifically mention the phrase ‘cocooning’ but it has been used by other UK-based experts in relation to the same policy. 

Professor Beate Kampmann, director of the vaccine centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said cocooning means that a “ring of immune people” protect the vulnerable people in the middle.

Another UK government adviser Dr David Halpern, a psychologist who heads the Behavioural Insights Team, explained that cocooning is about keeping certain at-risk people away from exposure. 

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows, as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those at-risk groups so that they basically don’t catch the disease,” he said. 

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Rónán Duffy

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