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Taoiseach orders schools, colleges and childcare facilities to close from 6pm this evening to prevent spread of coronavirus

The news was announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the United States this morning.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

Updated Mar 12th 2020, 12:50 PM

THE GOVERNMENT HAS announced that schools across the country are to close to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The decision applies to all schools and third-level institutions, and none will open tomorrow. It will also apply to other public facilities.

Furthermore, all museums, galleries and tourism sites will shut. Mass gatherings of over 100 (indoor) and 500 (outdoor) are cancelled. All these measures will take effect from 6pm today until 29 March.

The significant development comes as confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Republic of Ireland now stands at 43. One person has died from the virus here so far.

The decisions were announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the United States this morning, who said these measures would help to mitigate the effects of the virus here.

In a follow-up press conference in Dublin, Minister for Health Simon Harris said we have moved to the “delay phase” of the Covid-19 outbreak in Ireland while Tánaiste Simon Coveney admitted it’s an “awful lot to take in” and the “days and weeks ahead will be difficult”. 

“Never before has such drastic action been taken in the face of a public health threat,” Coveney said.

Varadkar’s speech

Varadkar said earlier: “The following measures are being put in place, and they will stay in place until the 29 of March. Schools, colleges, and childcare facilities will close from tomorrow.

Where possible teaching will be done online or remotely and cultural institutions will close as well.

Varadkar said there will be more cases and more people will get sick and “unfortunately we must face the tragic reality that some people will die”.

He said we have “not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living history and we are in uncharted territory”, and said “several important and unprecedented measures to protect public health” had also been taken.

We have to work now to have the greatest impact on the spread, he said.

The Taoiseach also said people can continue to go to work but where possible work from home.

Break times and working times should be staggered and meetings done remotely or on the phone, if possible.

Shops will remain open and there is a plan in place to ensure the supply chain will not be interrupted. Public transport will also continue to operate.

He said they government needs the public and businesses to take a “sensible, level-headed approach”.

Restaurants and cafes and other businesses can stay open but they should look at ways to implement advice on social distancing and people should reduce their social interactions as much as possible, according to the Taoiseach.

“Our health care workers have been at the forefront of this crisis since it started, and they will be at the frontline of the crisis in the time ahead,” he said.

We must do all we can to help them, so they can help those who need the help the most. I know that some of this is coming as a real shock. And it’s going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives. And I know that I’m asking people to make enormous sacrifices. But we’re doing it for each other.

“Together we can slow the virus in its tracks and push it back together as one nation we can save many lives. Our economy will suffer. But we can bounce back.

We are a great nation and we have overcome many trials in the past with our determination, and we will prevail again.

‘Never before’

At a press conference in Government Buildings following Varadkar’s announcement, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that “never before has such drastic action” been taken in the face of a public health threat. 

“What we have outlined has not been decided upon lightly,” he said. “The irony in order to pull together we’re asking people to stay apart.

It’s an awful lot to take in. I’m a husband, a father and a son too. I understand the concerns many households will have across the country. We do need to respond with calm, unity, discipline and resolve, collectively together.

Minister for Health Simon Harris said: “We’ve made it clear we will always take the right measures at the right time for the right length of time. This morning is that time. We’ve moved to the delay phase of Covid-19.

We do not take such measures lightly. Public health must always and will come first.

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said he believes the application of today’s measures will give us the “greatest chance” of responding to new cases of Covid-19.

Acknowledging that the public will have many questions about the new measures, Coveney said a special Cabinet meeting will take place this afternoon with each minister tasked with handling matters relating to their brief.

Coveney said that throughout the day, the government will be updating travel advice.

“We don’t have any plans to close airports or shutdown ferries but we will be looking at how we can communicate more directly and effectively as people use those services,” he says.

Ministers were also stressing that there is no need to panic buy given the current crisis, and that buying stuff you don’t actually need could actually be a detriment to supply.

Minister for Business Heather Humphreys said: “I can be sure of that, because I met with the retailers, I met with the distributors, and they have assured me that there is sufficient [stock] in the supply chain. If people go out and buy products that they don’t need to stockpile them they’re going to cause a problem.”

School closures

In a statement this afternoon, the Department of Education provided further detail on school closures.

It confirmed schools will remain closed until 29 March.

The department said: “All pupils and students, from pre-school to third level are urged to practice social distancing, and to minimise physical contact with each other, to help avoid the spread of Covid-19.

“This should include minimising social contact, avoiding meeting up and keeping physical space between them. Parents and guardians are urged to support their children to maintain this approach.”

Schools are being asked to, where possible, provide online resources for students or online lessons where schools are equipped to do so.

Schools have also been asked to prioritise supporting exam classes to continue to prepare for State examinations.

Minister for Education Joe McHugh said: “At this point in time the closure is planned for two weeks, from tomorrow until 29 March. The government, in conjunction with the public health authorities, will keep the situation under ongoing review. Any change to that date will be communicated widely.

Pupils should take their books and learning materials home with them this evening.

Clusters and Defence Forces action

Explaining the decision for making this call now, Holohan said:

Yesterday evening we came into possession, after that press conference yesterday evening, of new information in terms of cases from the National Virus Reference Laboratory, we considered that last night and in the light of that information, we provided this guidance.

Holohan wouldn’t clarify what these figures were, but said that it would be announced at this evening’s Department of Health briefing on new cases in Ireland.

He said that a number of clusters had been identified, pointing to community transmission, which is when cases appear without an obvious link to travel to an affected area, or a confirmed case in Ireland.

He clarified that when the virus spreads outside contact with confirmed cases, or not associated with travel, its “a strong signal that social distancing measures should be considered”. 

Also, in an update this afternoon, the Defence Forces said that it has notified personnel “of the impending change to our force posture and all non-essential activities have been suspended”. 

“Our focus now is to maximise our preparedness to respond to requests for assistance from the Civil Authorities. Protecting our personnel is our priority and is key to maintaining our capability to provide support to communities and civil authorities, when requested,” the statement says. 

“For operational security reasons, we will not comment on specific dispositions of troops or on internal unit procedures at this time.”

About the author:

Sean Murray

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