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Q&A: Your questions about Ireland's Covid-19 restrictions and health advice answered

Phase 4 has been delayed and there are some new restrictions on the way – what does it mean for you?

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AS THE COUNTRY re-opens from the Covid-19 lockdown, measures and restrictions are regularly being updated – sometimes week-to-week.

Some of these announcements refer to measures that will be mandatory with legislation to back them up, while others relate to guidelines or advice, rather than ‘rules’ that will be enforced.

This distinction has led to understandable confusion among the public. So we’ve brought back our Covid-19 Q&A series. Here are just some of the questions readers sent us in recent days:

FACE COVERINGS

Most of the questions from readers in recent days related to the wearing of face coverings. This week the government announced it would move to make face coverings in shops mandatory.

It follows the legislation already in place to make it compulsory to wear a face covering on public transport. But there is confusion about which settings people should and must wear masks. Readers asked about the rules and advice in relation to:

  • NCT centres
  • Pubs, restaurants and coffee shops
  • Offices
  • Gyms or dance studios

So let’s start with the places you legally must wear a face covering. Currently passengers on public transport are required to wear a face covering on board and can be refused transit if they do not comply.

There are exceptions for those who cannot wear a mask for health reasons, including mental health reasons, or for those with a disability. 

This week the Taoiseach also announced face coverings are to be made mandatory in shops for both customers and staff, unless a screen is in place. The new regulation has not yet been drafted and could take a matter of “days or weeks” to be signed off on, according to government sources.

As for the guidance in settings where it is not mandatory, the HSE advises people wear a face covering in situations where it is difficult to practice social distancing.

For theory test centres, people are advised to wear a face mask when attending  appointments. There are other settings, such as beauty salons, hairdressing salons and barbers where customers are asked to wear a face covering during their appointment.

The government has not indicated that it will make the wearing of masks mandatory in gyms. Ireland Active, the group representing businesses in this sector, has issued guidelines to gyms on how to safely operate.

This includes installing barriers and floor markings for social distancing and putting in place a system for booking exercise slots.

In businesses where food and drink is consumed, customers are generally not asked to wear a mask during their meals or while they have their cup of coffee – for obvious practical reasons – but these businesses are supposed to have physical distancing measures in place. 

Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

There are some workplaces in which employers are advised to ensure staff wear masks, for example in meat processing factories or other manufacturing facilities where it is difficult for staff to maintain distance from one another.

Health officials are still advising anyone who can do so to work from home. However some offices may now be requiring some staff to come to work. The current advice is that masks should be worn where it is difficult to practice social distancing – and in these situations employers should have distancing measures in place.

As a general rule going forward, it is a good idea to carry a cloth face covering with you at all times in case you enter a situation in which you are required to wear one or in which you believe it will be difficult to maintain distance from others.

In short: the only place where it is mandatory, and enforceable by law, to wear a mask currently is on public transport. A change has been announced to make wearing a face covering in shops mandatory and that will become enforceable by law in the coming weeks – but you’ll probably see many retailers start enforcing it before the legislation is enacted.

Readers also asked why there was a change in the advice around masks in Ireland:

  • Why are masks required now but months ago we were told it was wrong to wear a mask?
  • Why weren’t masks required at the height of the pandemic?

Readers will remember the debate that took place early on in the pandemic about how effective masks are. Health experts stated the evidence was not strong in relation to the efficacy of masks – this is true of many areas of evidence in relation to SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, because it is a new virus.

At the daily Department of Health briefings, experts also repeatedly stated that improper use of face masks – such as regularly touching the front of them – could actually make wearing one more risky. And there was concern that advice to wear masks could impact on the health service’s supply in the early days, when it was difficult to secure PPE. 

Officials also worried that people might worry less about hand washing – actions they deem more important – if they were wearing a mask. 

However, on Thursday evening Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn said health officials have been trying to improve the communication around face coverings for a number of weeks.

Although there still is not an abundance of evidence around the effectiveness of face coverings in relation to this coronavirus, there are indications they could help and experts have said people should not take the small evidence base to mean there is evidence that they do not work. 

Last week, Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory at UCD, told RTÉ:

“There is new evidence around asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission,” he said.

“That means you go from a symptomatic person wearing a mask to the person who is not symptomatic wearing a mask.

There is strong evidence that people who are asymptomatic can transmit infection, so we’re saying the mask may be beneficial. 

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has pointed to emerging evidence from clinical and lab studies that cloth face coverings can reduce the spray of droplets when worn by an infected person. 

The WHO has also advised governments to encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations.

It has said it is taking into account “available studies evaluating pre- and asymptomatic transmission, a growing compendium of observational evidence on the use of masks by the general public in several countries, individual values and preferences, as well as the difficulty of physical distancing in many contexts”.

Two readers wanted to know how enforcement in relation to face coverings would work for people who cannot wear one for health reasons.

One asked: “My mother has a breathing condition but how is this going to be handled? For instance if someone working in a shop prevents her entering without a mask, will they just take people’s word for it that they cannot wear one. It is going to be very difficult and stressful for people who physically cannot wear one having to justify themselves everywhere they go?”

On Thursday, Dr Glynn said: “There will always be a group of people who can’t wear them and we need to ensure that they’re allowed not to wear them and they don’t feel compelled to wear them because there are very valid reasons why they won’t wear them.”

He said the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will ensure that there is “very clear guidance and advice” for retailers in relation to people who can not wear a face covering. Glynn said advice had been issued to transport providers in relation to this. 

General secretary of the National Bus and Rail Union Dermot O’Leary told TheJournal.ie that the advice issued to staff by the three transport companies (Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus and Irish Rail) on this has been “generally the same”. 

“They’ve been reminded there are people who have difficulties, breathing or sensory issues and drivers should be aware that some people cannot wear them,” he said. O’Leary said he wanted to reiterate that it was not the job of drivers to enforce the law, but they have been asked by the companies to encourage passengers to wear masks. 

Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

He said drivers are “conscious” of these exceptions and he has heard anecdotally from drivers about passengers explaining why they cannot wear a mask. He said they have not been advised to ask for proof from these passengers. 

It is likely that retailers will be advised to take a similar approach when the new regulation in relation to shops is put in place. 

In short: The messaging around masks changed over the weeks as health officials began to learn more about the virus. People who cannot wear masks will have an exemption under law, and current anecdotal evidence suggests this is being handled well by drivers of public transport vehicles. 

TRAVEL

There was discussion earlier this week about restrictions imposed on tourists who travel into Ireland, particularly those coming from countries like the US, where there is a high level of coronavirus transmission.

Some were concerned that visitors were not adhering to the 14-day quarantine advice and there has been confusion about whether or not this is mandatory. So let’s clear that up: It is not mandatory.

However there are some requirements for arrivals, as well as public health advice.

By law, if a person arrives in Ireland from any other country they will be required to fill in a passenger locator form. This form logs details like phone numbers and the address the person intends to reside during their stay.

There are penalties attached to this requirement. If a person provides false or misleading information – like a different name or a false address – or if they fail to tell gardaí or border management agents they have moved accommodation during the 14 days after their arrival, they could face a €2,500 fine or a prison term of up to six months.

But there is no requirement for a tourist to remain in their room or their hotel for their entire stay. They are asked by health authorities to restrict their movements for 14 days of their stay (if they are staying here more than two weeks) but it is not legally required.

This means that if a tourist arrives in Ireland, provides a correct address for the accommodation they plan to stay in for the entire duration of their stay and spends their time socialising in the community, they are not breaking the law. They would be failing to follow public health advice, but they are free to make that decision.

In short: It is not mandatory for visitors to Ireland to quarantine for 14 days. It is also not mandatory for them to restrict their movements, but authorities have asked them to do so. It is mandatory for them to fill out a passenger locator form, and to tell authorities if they change their accommodation. 

Does the ‘non-essential travel’ advice apply to countries that are on the green list?

On Thursday, Dr Glynn acknowledged the messaging around travel is confusing. We know that the government’s green list of countries considered safe to travel to will be published on Monday.

However, readers will also have heard health officials continuing to advise against ‘non-essential travel’ – in other words, holidays – abroad. People have been encouraged to holiday at home in Ireland instead this year.

This is where regulations versus advice creates confusion.

There’s nothing in law to stop people booking holidays abroad – in a green list country or any other. And currently the 14-day quarantine on return from that holiday is not mandatory.

But the advice is to holiday in Ireland instead to minimise risk.

Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

This week Dr Glynn said:

NPHET is very clear that for this year in the context of a global pandemic, if we can stay at home and holiday at home in a country where we know what the guidance is, we know what the regulations are, we know what people are being asked to do, we understand the disease parameters, it’s better if possible – it’s not easy – but if you can please holiday at home.

“The green list is going to be a small list of countries that have a similar profile to ourselves that are in broad terms as safe as ourselves.

“And from a public health perspective we wouldn’t have undue concern about someone going to one of those countries and coming back, but from our perspective overall, we’re saying for this year, from a public health perspective, avoid non-essential travel. 

Dr Glynn said: “I accept that the message is confusing but I don’t think NPHET’s message is confusing, which is to stay at home for this year.”

He pointed out that the vast majority of countries that people in Ireland would want to go to for non-essential travel do not have similar epidemiological profiles to ourselves. 

“We’d be firmly saying ‘do not go to those countries’,” he added.

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In short: NPHET wants everyone to stay in Ireland as much as possible. Holidays do not count as essential travel. However, nobody is banned from going anywhere. 

Is quarantine mandatory for the countries included on the green list? Do we know which countries will be on it?

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney yesterday gave the first indication of what the green list may look like. He told Newstalk that the US will not be on this list and it is also “unlikely” that Britain will make the cut. 

“This is not on the basis of politics, it’s on the basis of epidemiological data and numbers, so we can compare Ireland to other countries,” he said.

The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) recently identified a number of countries in which there is a low incidence of disease – including Ireland – such as Cyprus, Greece, Estonia, Finland and Hungary.

However countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy that Irish holidaymakers tend to favour have a much higher incidence of the disease than Ireland. 

The European Union also recently finalised a list of countries whose health situation was deemed safe enough to allow residents to enter. Those on list are: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Japan, Georgia, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

However each member state can still make its own decisions on visitor restrictions.

The government has said visitors arriving from countries on our green list will not be expected to restrict their movements for 14 days after they arrive. But this list will be reviewed every two weeks, so that situation may change depending on changes in the level of disease in those countries.

In short: People coming to Ireland from green list countries are not required – or even asked – to quarantine or restrict their movements. 

Some Irish readers living abroad are wondering whether they will be able to get back soon to visit their families.

“I reside in London and I am unclear if people such as myself can visit home for less than two weeks so long as we quarantine the whole time we are there. So basically if you stay at your parents’ house the whole time.”

We have already heard from the Minister for Foreign Affairs that it is “unlikely” that Britain will be on Ireland’s green list. This means the expectation on visitors from Britain to restrict their movements during their stay will remain in place. And this applies to Irish citizens too. 

However, the HSE has said a person who arrives in Ireland from another country does not have to remain here for 14 days. They can take a return flight earlier than that.

They are advised to restrict their movements and follow the other public health advice for the duration of their stay.

In short: Advice states that anyone coming from a non-green list country, like the UK, should restrict movement for 14 days. They can leave before those 14 days are over, however. 

GATHERINGS

On Wednesday Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced recommended limits on the number of people who visit a home at one time. He said there is evidence that “unrestricted house parties have led to a rise in recent outbreaks of the virus”.

It is now recommended that social visits to people’s homes be limited to a maximum of 10 visitors from no more than four households. 

The Acting Chief Medical Officer this week said that from a public health perspective it is “preferable” for people to try to have a small group of people they meet regularly, rather than meeting up with different friends all the time.

“If you meet the same two or three people each time, or the same five or six people each time, it means that it’s the same five or six people are at risk. So if any one of you has the disease, it’s the same five or six who are at risk,” Dr Gynn said.

“We don’t have a specific number but I suppose we’re asking people to limit the size of their network. People still have to live, this isn’t going away anytime soon and part of the reason we recommended the measures that we did this week is that we have come so far.

We have got many parts of society back to a reasonable level of normality and what we need to try to do as much as possible is to hold onto that. So we’re asking people just to think twice about some of the things that they do and to do them more carefully so we can continue to do the things that we’re doing now, that we couldn’t do two months ago. 

The government also this week confirmed restrictions on indoor gatherings to 50 people and outdoors to 200 will remain until 10 August. 

This guidance relates to what the government describes as “organised” gatherings such as weddings. It is not advised that people have a gathering of 50 people over to their house for a party. 

However larger venues where people can be more spaced out are allowed to host events of this size. One reader, whose wedding is planned for 20 August got in touch:

Yesterday’s news has put myself and partner into a bit of a panic yet again. We are due to marry 20 August and we are at the minute allowed 92 guests, which is excellent news. With the delay of pubs opening and indoor events of 100 people until at least August 10th our nerves are gone again. We have not heard anything on the news regarding weddings, only the messages that pubs will remain closed until at least 10 August. If this is extended further our dream will be shattered again with nine days until our big day. Please can you help us?

Unfortunately for couples with weddings planned next month and beyond, there is no certainty about when indoor gatherings with more than 50 people will be allowed to go ahead. 

Dr Glynn has said he “hopes that there is hope” for couples who have weddings planned for later in the year. 

“We’re very conscious of the impact of this on particular groups and we’re very aware of the recommendations and what that means for people who are due to get married next week or the week after,” he said.

“But we also have to be clear about what the overarching priorities are in the context of this pandemic. We have got to do everything we can to get children back to school, we’ve got to get our health services, our screening services and all of our outpatient services back up and running to the greatest extent possible, and to protect the most vulnerable. They have to be the principles which guide us in the coming weeks.”

In short: Gatherings in your house should be capped at 10 people from a maximum of four households. The indoor gatherings of up to 50 people are for more organised events taking place in venues which allow for some distancing. There is no guarantee that the 10 August plan of allowing that number increase to 100 will go ahead. 

If you’re confused about any of the Covid-19 regulations or health advice, or you have a questions you’d like us to ask at one of the NPHET briefings, get in touch at answers@thejournal.ie.

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