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'We share information, we share data': A senior NI public health doctor on cross-border co-operation

He said he could forsee mass gatherings being cancelled if the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

Image: The Irish Image Collection

A SENIOR PUBLIC health doctor in Northern Ireland has said he “could foresee” mass gatherings being cancelled if the novel coronavirus continues to spread in the north and south of Ireland. 

It comes as Health Minister Simon Harris confirms guidelines about mass gatherings are likely to be published tomorrow.

Speaking to reporters today, Harris said he hoped the National Public Health Emergency Team would tomorrow “be able to finalise its guidelines which then could be issued out to organisations, and we could start a dialogue where necessary to provide help”.

There have been two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland – a woman in Northern Ireland, and a school pupil in Dublin. They were diagnosed when they each returned from trips to Italy. 

Last week the IRFU agreed to postpone the Six Nations rugby match between Ireland and Italy due to take place on Saturday, 7 March, on foot of advice from the Department of Health.

Assistant Director of Public Health at the Public Health Authority (PHA) in Northern Ireland Gerry Waldron suggested that further mass gatherings could be cancelled if there is a risk of community transmission. 

“It’s going to depend on the way things work out,” he told TheJournal.ie at the PHA’s headquarters in Belfast today. 

“This is a very rapidly evolving situation and, of course, if you look at the beginning of last week compared to where we are now, there have been huge changes. Obviously we didn’t have Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland cases this time last week and we have now. 

I’m obviously not privy to reasons [for the cancellation of] the rugby match but I imagine the reason was because Italy was involved and the locus being in Italy. In terms of mass events here, I could foresee that happening but only if we get into a situation of community transmission, of sustained community transmission. 

He added: “I wouldn’t think random gatherings would be postponed or cancelled unless we’re into that situation, but obviously people will be making plans just in case we need to move to that situation.”

Other events are now in doubt including the St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin which attracts thousands to the city centre every year. 

A decision on whether to postpone or cancel the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin is set to be taken by the end of this week, according to the Tourism Ireland chief Niall Gibbons. 

Similar parades will be held across Northern Ireland at the same time but there has yet to be any indication at government level that these events should be cancelled. 

The PHA and the National Public Health Emergency (NPHE) team have been in daily contact with each other as they both monitor the spread of the virus in Ireland. 

Contingency plans

With the PHA working closely with British government agencies, and the NPHE working closely with Irish government agencies, Waldron said the onus is on politicians to lead efforts to contain the spread across the entire island in their respective contingency plans being published this week. 

“There’s bound to be [variations] because we’re operating in two different jurisdictions but we always have had, in health protection particularly, very close links with our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland. 

“We’re in constant contact with them. We share information, we share data, but that’s not just in terms of Covid-19, it’s in any infectious disease. Viruses and bacteria don’t respect international boundaries and we have to share that information.”  

Waldron pointed to the use of Dublin Airport by Northern Ireland residents and cited that as a reason for consistent cross-border co-operation on the issue. 

“Bearing in mind a lot of residents in Northern Ireland will use Dublin Airport as a hub and gateway, at a very early stage we ensured that our information was given to our colleagues down south to ensure information is available at Dublin Airport.”

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Earlier today, the Covid-19 threat was upgraded from moderate to high in the European Union. 

At a press conference this morning, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had upped the coronavirus risk level to “high”. 

“In other words, the virus continues to spread,” von der Leyen said this morning. 

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