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Counting on friends

NPHET dismissed proposal for six-month restriction limiting number of social contacts to six

The proposed plan would have allowed young adults living at home to have a group of six contacts separate from their parents.

A PROPOSAL THAT would have limited one’s number of social contacts to six people for a period of six months was rejected by public health officials.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) dismissed a “safe socialising” proposal that was brought to the team for consideration, suggesting that the expectations laid out in the proposal were “unrealistic”.

At a meeting of NPHET on 5 November, a proposal was presented to place a specific limit on the number of social contacts a person could meet with outside their household.

The proposal outlined that “when meeting in person, people should only socialise with an exclusive group of 6 people from outside their household for the next six months or until a vaccine is distributed”.

“Groups should, where possible, meet outside. This idea is to limit the potential spread of the virus and assist with contact tracing.”

The proposed plan would have allowed young adults living at home to have a group of six contacts separate from their parents’ social contacts.

However, the proposal was met with concern from multiple members of NPHET.

The minutes from the 5 November meeting record that “with regard to the Safe Socialising proposal, many members of the NPHET expressed concern that the expectation may be unrealistic, especially when tied to the arrival of a vaccine”.

It was also noted that it may be exclusionary, particularly among younger cohorts.”

In November, two days after that meeting of NPHET, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Cillian De Gascun said that a specific limitation on the number of close contacts could be implemented to help keep transmission low after Level 5 restrictions were eased.

Speaking on Saturday with Katie Hannon on RTÉ Radio One on 7 November, he said that public health officials “may need to look at a situation whereby there’s a limited number of close contacts that we can have in a weekly period”. 

“The challenge is identifying what that number of close contacts is going to be because we want the R0 to ideally be below one, and the problem is if we’re looking at say, for argument’s sake, three close contacts versus four close contacts, that could flip the balance of an R0 from below one to above one,” De Gascun said. 

However, the idea of a specific number of close contacts is a measure which has not materialised to date.

NPHET meetings in November closely considered how to limit the spread of the virus over the Christmas period and the easing of Level 5 restrictions.

On 12 November, the Department of Health presented a draft paper on potential considerations for lifting Level 5 restrictions and the overall strategy for managing Covid-19 in the upcoming months.

Recent research that was considered during the discussion included findings that 70% of people believed this Christmas would be worse than last year’s.

Key worries were around reduced social contact (64%) and the health of family and friends (63%).

The minutes of the meeting record that “ith regard to 1 December, in the ensuing discussion, members of the NPHET voiced support for the two-phased approach for easing restrictions in the upcoming period and using the 5-Level Framework for clarity and consistency”.

“In favour of the two-phased approach, many members noted the importance of easing any restrictions in a step-wise, tiered fashion in order to mitigate any potential rush that may occur if non-essential retail, hospitality and services were to open on the same day,” the minutes say.

“Concern was also raised about 1 December and whether this date would be too early with regard to Christmas, potentially causing a significant rise in numbers in the pre-Christmas period.

“Members stated that they would favour a conservative approach in the beginning of December, followed by a social period with very clear guidelines, then a return to more conservative measures following the holiday period.”

There was some discussion at the meeting around when the phases should be announced and how often they should be reviewed.

Some members of NPHET asserted that the phases should be set out in advance to ensure that people were aware what to expect ahead of time.

However, others said that the restrictions should be applied on a week-on-week approach that would be guided by the changing epidemiological situation, but the “practicality” of that approach was questioned and ultimately not adopted.

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