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Simon Harris: 'Ireland needs a day where people can grieve for those who have died during this pandemic'

Ramping up testing, a day for Ireland to grieve, and another bank holiday – just some of the plans for during and after the Covid-19 crisis.

Health Minister Simon Harris spoke to TheJournal.ie today about future testing, holidaymakers, and social distancing.
Health Minister Simon Harris spoke to TheJournal.ie today about future testing, holidaymakers, and social distancing.

IT’S THREE DAYS since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation and told the Irish public the plan to reopen the country will take a number of months. 

The reality of the roadmap has settled in with people, with many realising it will be some weeks before they see their loved ones, but even longer before they can feel the embrace of family and friends. 

In an exclusive interview with Health Minister Simon Harris today, he told TheJournal.ie that frontline workers not in the health service, such as essential workers or public service workers, might be next in line for future testing.

He revealed that there are still big question marks over when people can set the date for their weddings, when people can book holidays abroad, and when people can even hug each other.  

The minister also revealed that an extra bank holiday might be a good idea for later this year and how he wants a special date set aside so people can remember those that have lost their lives during this public health emergency.

Hugs, kisses, social interaction

“It’s bloody tough on people, like, it really is,” said the minister, sitting in a meeting room in the Department of Health on Bank Holiday Monday, just a stone’s throw from where the daily Covid-19 case numbers and deaths are announced each day.

When asked about the headline of a newspaper today that reads: ‘No hugs for granny’, the minister sighs.

He does not know when grandparents will be able to hold their grandchildren again, he says.

But it is not just grandparents, it’s parents, boyfriends, girlfriends and partners who are affected. 

“The only honest answer I can give to people is the quicker we can really weaken the virus, the more we can begin to look at all of these issues. Like all of these things, they are medically under review, so people will be glad to know it’s not me deciding who can kiss who. It’s our doctors giving us the best medical advice as to how to stay safe,” said Harris.

“I mean, at the moment nobody can say when physical distancing won’t apply. Remember the reason we’re doing this, when you talk about grannies and granddads, is to keep them safe. All of us want to hug our grannies and grandads but none of us want to risk making them sick in doing so.”

The minister is keen to stress that cocooning is going to evolve as the plan goes on.

“The more we can suppress and weaken the virus, the more we will be able to evolve cocooning. Cocooning isn’t a policy or a restriction, cocooning is just sharing the best public health advice that we have with our over 70s. But I can’t lie to people, and I can’t give people false hope either,” he said, stating that the virus is more deadly to older and more vulnerable people. 

Setting the date

While Covid-19 is a public health emergency, it has impacted all aspects of life for people, including those who plan to get married. Some smaller weddings should be able to be held from 20 July, with larger ones on the cards for after 10 August under current plans.

But there is not a lot of detail on what that means for people looking to book dates, send invites, organise music and get photographers. 

“Our roadmap isn’t prescriptive; we haven’t said, you know, ‘you can have a wedding if there’s X number’ and ‘you can’t have this Y number’. We have to be a little bit arbitrary at the moment,” said Harris.

He said the plan sets out that it is not going to be possible to hold a wedding in the first few phases, but as the roadmap moves forward more details will be published.

“I’ve received about five change the date messages for weddings that were due to take place this year that people have moved to next year. So I know a lot of people are making these decisions in consultation with their venue and their family and their friends. I know it’s a  really stressful and difficult time, but I can’t today provide that degree of certainty to people. I can’t guarantee that on X date this will be possible. But what I can tell you is, as we move through the plan that each phase we will be trying to provide more detail on what the next phase might look,” he said. 

Over the weekend, Harris also dampened down any prospect of people jetting off on holidays this year, stating that foreign travel was looking “highly unlikely”. 

When will people be able to book trips away? The short answer is the government doesn’t know yet.

“I hope I didn’t over overstate what I was trying to say. I was just making the honest point, just being blunt and honest with people, as I have throughout this, is at the moment, the travel advice from our country is don’t leave the island. So that’s the advice today -  you shouldn’t leave the island in your own interest -  and that advice may change, but it hasn’t changed now. And I haven’t received any indication from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) that they’re about to change.”

001 NO FEE Community Assessment Hub Minister for Health Simon Harris, HSE CEO Paul Reid and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a Covid-19 Community Assessment Hub in DCU. Source: Photocall Ireland

Anyone also planning to travel abroad this year should be aware that there is a 14-day isolation period when you arrive back in Ireland. 

“We will lift all of these as quickly as we can but at the moment, there isn’t a date in the calendar in which this will be definitively lifted… Whether something will be possible later in the year, God willing, I think lots of us would like that to be the case. And maybe it’ll be possible to have  staycations, where people can take a holiday within their own country.”

Another bank holiday?

On a positive note, when asked about the possibility of Ireland perhaps getting an extra bank holiday in the latter part of this year, seeing as some of the most popular days off will have occurred when people have been stuck at home, the minister is open to the idea. 

“Yeah, I think when the country gets through this – and we will get through it – and it’s safe to begin to do some normal things again, I think there would be some benefit in having a day to recognise all that people have been through and sacrificed, that people might be able to enjoy with their family and friends,” said Harris.

However, he said there would be no point in having such a day any time soon, if you have to tell people they can’t go near their loved ones, or limit the number of people allowed.

“So, it might be a little bit further off,” he said.

There are two things he definitely wants done after the pandemic passes. Harris wants a special day to express gratitude to frontline workers.

This would include healthcare workers, but also supermarket workers, postmen and women, gardaí, security staff, cleaning staff, people who work in food factories, bin collectors – what Harris calls the “unsung heroes”.

Finding a way to grieve

He also wants to find a way to allow the country to grieve for its losses. 

While he wouldn’t necessarily call it a memorial day, he said there should be a day where people can grieve for those who have died of Covid-19 and those who passed away of non-Covid related illnesses and where a normal funeral could not be held.

“People haven’t been able to go to the house and give the family a hug and attend the wake and go to the funeral… we do funerals well in Ireland, I think we grieve quite publicly and openly as a community. Lots and lots of communities have been touched by this. And I think we need to recognise that,” he said.

Before we get to the stage where a celebration day for workers or an extra bank holiday is on the cards, the country has to make its way through the five phases of the exit plan.

There has been commentary in recent days about it – both for and against the strategy.

Cabinet ministers have voiced their concerns about its pace, as have some top officials in government, who worry that the longer Ireland stays in lockdown the more damage will be done to the economy. 

However, the RED C poll published in the Business Post newspaper yesterday, which was taken in late April, in advance of the announcement of the roadmap, indicated that 75% of people were willing to see a further extension of lockdown restrictions. 

birthday party 08 Ashton Carolan (10) from Dublin enjoys a social distancing birthday party with a difference in the driveway of his home today. Source: Sam Boal

Today, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern referenced Ireland and the slow, drawn-out plan in place before normality will resume. She said the lifting of restrictions in her country is happening much faster. 

When asked about this, Harris said each country’s plan can’t be pitted against each other.

It’s obviously her job to protect people in New Zealand and to run New Zealand’s response. It is our job to run Ireland’s response. The situation in every country is very different. And there is no readymade plan that you can just pick up from one country and transpose to another.
And I think Prime Minister Ardern seems to have done a very good job in New Zealand. But we also know that this is a virus that travels around the world and we don’t yet know when the story of this virus is going to end.
I think it’s too premature for any country to believe it’s out of the woods in relation to it. I’m not saying that the prime minister believes that, but the plan we’ve put in place is based on our best public health advice, and I have no interest in putting forward a plan that is politically ambitious and perhaps even politically expedient but would risk people’s lives. 

Harris said the roadmap published on Friday is “very much an interactive, living, breathing document”. One top official said that is the phrase used by civil servants to say there is “no real plan”.

That could ring true as ministers, including the health minister, have indicated that things in the plan could be expedited.

‘Chink of light’

“If we can move things from one phase to the other on the basis of public health, we will definitely do that. But we’re not going to look over our shoulder at any other country and feel pressurised to move quicker. We’re going to do what’s right by Ireland, what’s right by the health of our people,” said Harris, who added that the plan has given people a ‘chink of light’.

“We would all like these restrictions to be lifted yesterday on a human level – of course we would, they are really tough. And we’re not going to leave them in place for one moment longer than is required, but nor are we going to put together a plan to try and be politically attractive … this isn’t an election manifesto. This is a public health document,” said the minister. 

While we have a document outlining each phase, questions have also been asked about what targets the virus numbers will have to reach before each phase kicks in. The document says there is a decision mechanism framework, but gives no specific figures. 

Harris said there is no “magic number” but rather a trend of trajectory that must be achieved.

He said lockdown restrictions kicked in when there were 70 people in ICU, and for things to resume to some level of normality, that figure or a lower one would have to be reached.

Today, the latest figures show another fall to 93 people in ICU. Yesterday it was 99. It peaked at 160 last month.

The reproductive rate – which is the number that indicates how many people a confirmed case of Covid-19 infects – is now in a good place, said Harris today. 

When the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan was talking about flattening the curve, people will probably remember talk of getting the reproductive number below one. It now is stable between 0.5-0.8, said the minister. 

Harris said it “is a really good sign. It means the virus is not able to sustain itself at its current rate, and will be suppressed”. So keeping the number below one is definitely one key metric.

The minister said there are a number of metrics that will be considered, such as the ICU numbers and the number of new cases.

016 Dept of Health briefing (1) Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer. Source: RollingNews.ie

Numbers to watch

The ICU number has been “falling and falling” but it’s still higher than it was when we locked down the country.

Harris said there are encouraging signs in the number of new cases in recent days. For seven days in a row now the rate of growth has been 2% or less. It was about “5% or 6% two weeks ago, and 33% at one stage,” said Harris.

If your number of new cases falls then the number of the percentage of people going into ICU would fall, the percentage of people sadly dying would fall, so the number of new cases is a key number to watch.

The minister said the next two weeks are crucial.

“We should hopefully see at the end of that two weeks when we get to 18 May far fewer people in our ICU, far fewer people in our hospitals, fewer new cases, the reproductive number stable and below one for two or three weeks. That will give our plan the best chance of success.”

However, the government has also been criticised for sending out mixed messages when it comes to Ireland’s testing capacity. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the minister misunderstood experts when he predicted 15,000 daily Covid-19 tests would be carried out per day.  

Harris denies this, saying that it was Ireland’s plan to do 15,000 tests  a day as quickly as possible, rather than immediately. 

“Then obviously a lot of complications arose,” he admitted, explaining that there were issues with reagent. 

“If our virus was in a very good place and it was just a case of testing, we would have enough testing capacity to begin the easing of our restrictions in accordance with our plan,” he said. 

Today, the HSE boss Paul Reid confirmed to the minister that we have the capacity to do 12,000 tests a day. From 18 May, the capacity will reach 15,000 per day, the minister said. 

“The more testing we can do, and the quicker we could do it, the better. I think the HSE have done a really good job on this, and gone from having no labs in Ireland ever having done this test to 27 labs now, and 40 or so testing centres across the country, I’m happy with the trajectory we’re on – but we have to be honest with people here. This is constantly going to be a challenging area, not just for Ireland but for every country because we’re all competing,” he said. 

Harris said ramping up of testing will continue and the criteria for testing will be expanded. 

While testing has been prioritised for healthcare workers, other frontline workers not involved in the health service may be tested en masse in the future. 

“We will be deciding in Ireland who to test on the basis of the case definition, so it won’t be a political decision, it will be a public health decision led by doctors – what are the groups in society that we most need to test on public health grounds. So far, it’s been linked to symptoms, priority groups, and also asymptomatic people, like for example residents in nursing homes.

“I don’t want to speculate on who will be next but the public health teams will be deciding to broaden that to bring in more and more people -  perhaps more frontline workers, perhaps frontline workers working outside the health service, perhaps easing the symptom prevalence even more,” he said. 

He added that he is not envisaging making the testing mandatory, but he does envisage a very significant expansion of increasing the number of tests. 

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