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Dr Michael Ryan of the WHO (file photo).
Dr Michael Ryan of the WHO (file photo).
Image: Tobias Hase/DPA/PA Images

Mike Ryan says there's a 'genuine desire to offer people the hope of Christmas' but risks remain

Dr Ryan said he doesn’t “envy” the Irish government and there are “no easy answers”.
Nov 26th 2020, 1:15 PM 17,252 24

EASING COVID-19 RESTRSICTIONS in the coming weeks so people can spend Christmas with their families presents Ireland with “genuine dilemmas”, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

“There’s a genuine desire to offer people the hope of a celebration of Christmas and ensure that people have the opportunity to celebrate that to the extent possible with family, but recognising movements and large gatherings can drive transmission,” the Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme said.

Speaking to Irish journalists in an online press conference orangised by the Bar of Ireland, Ryan said there “are a series of trade-offs and genuine dilemmas, for which there are there are no correct scientific answers” in terms of loosening restrictions over Christmas.

“I don’t envy the government in Ireland,” he added, also saying there are “no easy answers”.

The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 will today consider advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) about easing Level 5 restrictions ahead of a government announcement tomorrow.

NPHET convened yesterday and finalised its advice for government which the sub-committee will consider today ahead of a full Cabinet meeting tomorrow.

Ryan said gatherings, large and small, can drive transmission of Covid-19. He said people may need to consider wearing masks at home, particularly if a family member is vulnerable, and limit the number of people in a room at the same time.

“We do know that household transmission is a major factor. Because once you deal with community transmission in terms of separating people from each other, you then have a situation where the majority of your infections come from households.”

Ryan said infections stemming from household interactions are “highly dependent on the number of individuals in that household, the duration they spend there, and the level of their physical contact, or otherwise with each other”.

He said people need to bear this in mind if visiting other households over Christmas, as well as mitigate risks via practices such as hand hygiene and mask-wearing.

Ryan said people are “designed to manage risk as human beings” and he is confident most will do this once they have clear information and guidelines to follow.

“How do we take the risk out of the small gatherings, the small family situations? How does everybody be careful? How do people find a way to reduce the risk of themselves and others? And that comes down to very clear advice from the government on how that can be done.”

He noted that when societies ease restrictions or open up after a lockdown, there is often a jump in Covid-19 cases. “The question then becomes, how good is the testing the contact-tracing and the quarantine for contacts? Have the other systems stood up?”

Ryan commended efforts to “crush” Covid-19 in Ireland.

“The people of Ireland have crushed this curve (twice), with the support of government and others.”

He added that Ireland “was the first country in Europe, to my knowledge, to bend this curve this time round”, referring to the second wave of the virus.

Vaccine

In recent weeks there have been positive developments about a number of Covid-19 vaccines which could be rolled out globally in the coming months.

The strategy for distibuting the vaccine in Ireland is to be presented to government by 11 December.

Ryan today said that vaccines by themselves “do not equal zero-Covid” and “continued vigilance on physical-distancing and mask-wearing” is also needed.

“Getting back to life, as we know it, you can imagine how much I want that for both professional and personal reasons so I can see my family,” he said.

Ryan told reportes that vaccines need to be added to “our existing toolkit”.

“We need to be very careful here that we don’t have a belief of ‘Oh, we have the vaccines coming down the road, so we’ll just wait for them and we’ll finish this’. Vaccines by themselves do not equal zero-Covid.

“I believe what can equal zero-Covid is if we add vaccines to our continued vigilance on physical-distancing and mask-wearing and other things.”

Ryan said this type of viligance, coupled with a vaccine, could eradicate the need for lockdowns.

“Lockdowns are essentially a failure of control. Vaccines are a massive tool for control. If we add vaccines to our continued vigilance as a society, then I think we can get to control that does not involve highly disruptive lockdowns.”

Ryan said lockdowns are “what’s really affecting people” as they result in individuals not haing access to education, healthcare and their scoial networks, adding that this “trauma” can have a big impact on mental health.

Ryan noted that frontline workers and vulnerable people will be the first groups to be vaccinated. He said it “will take time for the vaccine then to roll out to the general population, and because of that, that continued vigilance is going to be required.”

Misinformation

Ryan also spoke about the surge in the spread of false information in recent months. He told reporters “misinformation and disinformation has been a huge feature of this pandemic” and “has been very difficult to deal with”.

He said false information creates “unhelpful and unnecessary and, frankly, useless binary discussions, polemics” – something the WHO and individual goverments have tried to combat.

“We’ve fought hard for open societies in which everyone has their voice, whether you want to hear what they’re saying or not is another issue.

“And we need to be very careful not to target the messengers, or necessarily target the message that they’re giving.”

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Ryan stated: “The best vaccine against misinformation and disinformation is good information, fast information, credible information, information that you can act on.”

He added that governments need to communicate “quickly, effectively and credibly” with citizens.

Human Rights Award

Ryan, who was born in Sligo and grew up in Mayo, will later today be awarded with the Bar of Ireland’s annual Human Rights Award at a virtual cermony.

Speaking about the award, Maura McNally SC, Chair of The Bar of Ireland, said: “The swift, expert guidance provided by the World Health Organization since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic has provided great assurance and assistance to people and countries all over the world.

“That its response is headed up by an Irish man has been a particular source of pride and comfort for people in this country. To hear one of our own provide such authoritative advice in press briefings at the peak of the pandemic was particularly reassuring.”

McNally added that Ryan has had “an exceptional career working to combat emerging and epidemic disease threats”.

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Órla Ryan

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