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Harris: 'There's no magic point at the start of May where life as we know it before coronavirus can resume'

Factors such as ICU capacity and the reproduction rate of the virus will determine how and when restrictions can be eased back.

Image: RollingNews.ie

THE HEALTH MINISTER has said a number of factors, including ICU capacity and the reproduction rate of the coronavirus in Ireland, will determine the state of play after the government begins to ease back restrictions.

On Friday, the Taoiseach announced current restrictions will remain in place until 5 May. 

Speaking to reporters at the Department of Health today, Harris said the next three weeks will be a “delicate stage” in the process and warned people not to take the progress so far for granted or to become complacent.

He said he wanted to encourage people to focus on what they can currently do – keep following the guidelines in place at the moment – rather than on what may happen after 5 May.

However he said he recognised that people were looking for some guidance on what things would look like if the restrictions were eased back – and what would have to happen for that easing back to continue.

“I don’t mean to be so naive or unreasonable to expect people not to wonder about their futures, we all wonder when we can see our family again, when we can see our friends again, when might my job come back again. I’m acutely aware of that and the pain of that uncertainly,” he said. 

Harris said these next three weeks and the action taken during that time will directly impact on this return to some level of normality. 

“What does that look like? Well it doesn’t look like going back to life before the coronavirus because the coronavirus is still going to be here,” he said.

There isn’t going to be a magic point at the start of May where life as we knew it before the coronavirus can resume. I think, being truthful, social distancing is going to remain a very big part of life not just in Ireland but the world over, until we get to a vaccine or an effective treatment for the coronavirus.

Harris said there is no “manual” for how to reopen the country after shutting down many aspects of society, but there are three metrics in particular that health officials will be watching over the next three weeks and after any easing back of restrictions. 

  1. ICU capacity
  2. The reproduction rate of the virus
  3. The overall  rate of growth in Ireland

He said ICU capacity is a “much more important” metric than how many people get sick with the virus because most people can recover fine at home.

“The ICU capacity is an indicator of how severely ill people are getting,” he explained, adding that health officials will never want to allow for a situation where we are about to breach that capacity.

Last week Dr Philip Nolan, who chairs the modelling advisory group, revealed Ireland has brought down its reproduction rate from above four before restrictions were in place to around one. This means, on average, each confirmed case is infecting around one other person.

Bringing this number below one will be crucial over the next three weeks, the minister said today. And that number will be closely watched after restrictions are eased back in case it begins to rise quickly. 

Harris said there is a “delicate balance” to be reached with this number. Data from the modelling group indicates that if Ireland had stuck with basic social distancing and the closure of schools and universities, by the end of May we would have had an increased of 70,000 cases in one day.

“The better position we’re in at the start of May on each of those three metrics the more options we have,” Harris said. 

He said Ireland also has the benefit of being able to watch what other countries are currently doing – Denmark is talking about opening schools this week, for example. 

The minister said he did not expect testing capacity to be a blockage to the lifting of restrictions. Earlier today HSE chief executive Paul Reid said the testing backlog has now been reduced to 11,000. 

Changes to the criteria for testing in the early days of the outbreak led to this backlog, as the case definition was expanded to include anyone with symptoms of the disease.

In order to bring the backlog down, and ensure healthcare workers in particular could be quickly tested, the case definition was narrowed two weeks later. Currently, in order to get a test for Covid-19, a person must be in a priority group, such as healthcare workers, residents or staff at nursing homes and those who are medically vulnerable and have been advised to cocoon. 

The minister said he expected that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will recommend broadening the criteria again once the backlog has been worked through.

He said it would be beneficial during these next three weeks to detect “as much of the virus as possible”.

However he said it would be a challenge for the health service to match capacity with the broadening of the case definition. 

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Delays have already been caused by supply shortages of both swabs and reagents and difficulties with ramping up lab capacity.

He said in order to broaden out testing, the health service would “need to get every point in that process aligned”. 



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