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Committee hears further outbreaks of Covid-19 'probable', but strategy is 'right one for Ireland at this time'

Any future increases in numbers would likely be managed in a targeted way, Professor Philip Nolan said today.

THE CHAIR OF the Covid-19 modelling advisory group has said it is “probable” that at some point in future there will be an increase in the number of cases of the disease in Ireland again.

At the Oireachtas Special Covid-19 Committee, Professor Philip Nolan was asked about a letter signed by leading Irish scientists which warns of a second wave of infection in Ireland with the current strategy.

Nolan said with any new virus, scientists will have different judgements based on the “incomplete evidence “available, but he believes the current approach is “the right strategy for this country at this time”.

When asked about the potential for a second wave of infection, Nolan said it is “probable that at some point in the future the incidence of disease will increase again in our society”.

“When will this happen and how difficult will it be to manage is very hard to predict.”

He said management of renewed outbreaks would likely be different as we learn more about the virus.

“So I imagine that there could be more targeted measures introduced to control the future outbreaks before the sort of blanket measures that we’ve seen in this context,” he said.

“It would be arrogant of me to predict where we will be with the virus by the end of the year. There is lots we don’t know. We need to plan as if a second wave is possible and try to have all of the contingency plans in place for that scenario if the virus comes back in the future.”

Witnesses in front of the committee were also questioned today about how significant travel by Cheltenham racegoers was to the spread of infection when they returned home to Ireland. 

There was criticism back in March of the decision by organisers of the Cheltenham Festival to press ahead with it. 

Dr Cillian De Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory said there is no specific evidence of this travel having a significant role in the transmission of this disease. 

“At the moment we don’t have specific evidence that the virus would have been particular associated with those groups of individuals,” he said.

We are an island nation with significant transport links to other European countries on a daily basis. I don’t think we have evidence to support the assertion that they would have been points of introduction for the virus.

De Gascun said he believes the current Covid-19 testing system is working “incredibly well” but pointed out that it was set up in the context of a pandemic and a long-term solution is needed. 

He said the HSE is working on a more sustainable solution for the winter season.

“What we have done so far has worked well, but I believe given the way it has been established with the number of volunteers and staff seconded from other positions, a longer term solution is required.”

Committee members also pressed Professor Nolan and Dr De Gascun on advice around the use of face coverings. 

Independent TD Matt Shanahan said there have been “confusing messages” around their use and how effective they are. 

De Gasun said that while there may be a “plausible hypothesis” about cloth face coverings stopping particles and therefore stopping the virus, the strength of the evidence “not fantastic” and more research is needed.

However he said the current recommendation is that people wear coverings in situations where it is difficult to physically distance from others, such as in supermarkets or on public transport. He said they may be beneficial if used appropriately, but should only be viewed as “an add-on” to the other public health advice. 

Professor Nolan said he is concerned that people may see the use of face coverings as a replacement for other elements such as handwashing and maintaining distance, which he said are “essential” pieces of advice in terms of the pandemic. 

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