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Pubs and restaurants expected to close, but the data around Covid outbreaks paints a complex picture

The industry has said that few cases are linked to pubs and restaurants but international studies suggest dining out could be a factor in the spread of the disease.

Pubs are set to remain shuttered in Dublin, with restuarants also closing, under new restrictions.
Pubs are set to remain shuttered in Dublin, with restuarants also closing, under new restrictions.
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM NPHET that pubs and restaurants should stop serving food under the new restrictions set to be imposed in Dublin have sparked alarm in the industry, raising questions about how many Covid-19 outbreaks are linked to dining out. 

This morning, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, Adrian Cummins, said he was “shocked” by the recommendations, set to be considered by the Cabinet today. 

He said that outbreaks had been traced back to households, not pubs and restaurants, adding that the industry had been given no warning about the proposed new rules. 

The government is expected to follow the recommendation, that comes as part of wider Level 3 restrictions in the county following an alarming rise in cases. 

Health Protection Surveillance Centre data suggests that there have only been a handful of Covid-19 outbreaks in pubs and restaurants since they re-opened. Many more are linked to private homes.  This has also been confirmed by NPHET representatives at recent Covid-19 briefings.

But senior health officials have stressed to TheJournal.ie that this isn’t the full picture. 

One senior health official said that often the contact tracing process will only seek out contacts for the last 48 hours – the period during which an individual is infectious. 

They stressed that contact tracers are not interested in where the disease came from, but are instead focused on where the disease is going as it’s passed to more recent contacts. 

This means that if family members or housemates, as close contacts, are tested and are confirmed to have Covid-19, the HPSC labels it as ‘household’ outbreak – even if the virus was originally picked up in a pub or restaurant.

coronavirus-thu-sep-17-2020 Dublin is facing new restrictions, following a rise in cases. Source: PA Images

This afternoon, Professor Philip Nolan, Chair of NPHET’s Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said: “We would like to go back and find out where people are getting the virus, but we don’t have the time or resources to pursue this academic exercise.”

On Twitter, he said: “We have lots of international evidence from better resourced systems on how the virus transmits: we know that social settings, including bars and restaurants, drive community transmission.”

He said that the virus was being picked up houses, gyms, bars and restaurants. “Sadly, unless we stop mixing in these settings, we know the disease will spiral out of control,” he said. 

Data from elsewhere seems to bear this out. One recent study, carried out by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, suggested that adults with Covid-19 were twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant in the past 14 days before becoming sick. 

The report found that Covid-19 cases in restaurants could be linked to a lack of air circulation, even if masks are worn and social distancing guidelines are followed. 

However, the sample size was relatively small at 314 – split between positive and negative cases. 

Researchers also noted that the study didn’t ask participants to distinguish between indoor and outdoor dining. 

People in the UK have also started to speculate whether the government’s ‘Eat out to Help Out’ scheme, to encourage people to return to restaurants, might have been a contributing factor in the rise in coronavirus cases across the country. 

The Cabinet will decide later today what shape Dublin’s restrictions will take. The 14-day incidence of Covid-19 per 100,000 people in Dublin is at 104, followed by Louth on 76.8 and Leitrim on 71.8, according to figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

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NPHET’s recommendations were considered by a new oversight group chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach’s Secretary General Martin Fraser yesterday evening. The group will also advise the government.

The special Cabinet Covid-19 Sub-Committee is scheduled to meet later today.

This committee is chaired by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and includes Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath.

A decision from the Cabinet is expected this afternoon or this evening. 

With reporting by Cónal Thomas

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