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CMO warns progress could be 'undone very quickly' as data shows increase in population movement

Dr Tony Holohan said it is not certain that restrictions will be relaxed on 5 May.

Updated Apr 23rd 2020, 9:00 PM

THE CHIEF MEDICAL Officer (CMO) has warned the public against “slacking off” with restrictions to stop the spread of Covid-19 as new data indicates people are out and moving around more in the last week.

At this evening’s Department of Health briefing, Dr Tony Holohan presented data from the Irish National Seismic Network, which picks up earthquake activity but which can also pick up activity involving the movement of people, such as traffic.

Source: Leah Farrell

It shows a very significant reduction in seismic noise after strict restrictions were implemented. However, in the last number of days, an increase in activity can be seen.

“This is giving us hard evidence that there is more population movement in spite of our continuing advice and gives us an evidential basis for some of the concerns we have been expressing,” he said.

Dr Holohan also presented mobile phone data from Apple, which shows an increase in walking, driving and transit from 13 April to this week.

The data presented this evening is at odds with an analysis of traffic volumes presented this morning at the government’s daily Covid-19 briefing.

Liz Canavan of the Department of An Taoiseach shared the analysis, which was undertaken by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) and which found the volumes this week were “in line with the previous weeks since the restrictions were introduced”.

“Spot checks on roads show no noticeable increase. Most are within 5% of the average weekday volumes under the current restrictions,” she said. 

‘It is not a certainty’

This evening, the CMO warned against complacency. He said it is understandable that people want to get out more as we move towards a possible slackening of measures on 5 May.

However he said this is not guaranteed. “If the decision was to be made today, we wouldn’t be advising that any of the restriction that are in place be relaxed,” he said.

“I think it’s really important that people don’t anticipate that’s what’s going to happen on the 5th of May and they don’t make the assumption. It is not a certainty that that’s the position we’ll be in.”

At the briefing, Professor Philip Nolan, head of the modelling advisory group, said Ireland’s reproduction number – the number of people infected by a confirmed case – has dropped now to between 0.5 and 0.8. 

He said if we can manage to keep that number down after restrictions are relaxed, a small increase could be quickly controlled with the re-imposition of restrictions for a period of time. 

If that rises to 1.6 because “people are a little bit relaxed and contact each other a little bit more than we would like”, we could see a “dangerous peak” of up to 1,000 cases a day. Even this could be quickly controlled with a re-introduction of stricter measures.

However, if that number rises to 2.4, Nolan said we will “have a real difficulty”. 

“We wouldn’t be able to cope with that, quite frankly.”

The CMO said Professor Nolan’s modelling data shows it will “take very little” for us to lose the good work we have done. 

“There’s no sense in which we have achieved something there that couldn’t all be undone very quickly,” he said. 

- With reporting by Stephen McDermott.

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