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Focus until Christmas is on reopening society, protecting jobs and the most vulnerable, says minister

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has asked NPHET whether the Kildare lockdown can be lifted early.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly says targeted measures will be the government's focus from now until the end of the year.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly says targeted measures will be the government's focus from now until the end of the year.
Image: Oireachtas.ie

LOCALISED LOCKDOWNS CAN work and are the way forward, according to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.

Speaking at the Dáil Special Covid-19 Committee today, the minister said the government’s strategy from now until Christmas is focusing on the reopening of society, protecting jobs and protecting the most vulnerable.

He said the government will be implementing “measures that avoid lockdown by minimising situations where the virus spreads”.

“We are now in the second chapter of the fight against Covid-19, and that from now until at least Christmas, the focus is on suppressing the virus to allow the reopening of society,” he said.

Donnelly said “targetted measures” will ensure the economy and country can remain open.

Local lockdowns

Localised lockdowns in Kildare, Offaly and Laois showed that it is “possible to act quickly and suppress the virus”, he said.

The minister also confirmed that he has asked the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) to look at the case of Kildare, the only remaining county under restrictions, and whether the lockdown easing date can be lifted early. 

“If they can be lifted early they certainly will be,” he said. 

“The public health advice is we are at a tipping point and we are doing everything we can to suppress this virus to avoid a second lockdown,” said Donnelly.

When asked about the Kildare lockdown, the minister said the case growth was a combination of high risk workplaces; travel may have played a part in terms of workers sharing commutes; accommodation and congregated settings played a part.

He said there may have been a “super spreader” or several super spreaders, adding that public health doctors do not know as of now.

Donnelly told the committee that it is important not to lay blame at a particular group or sector.

Labour’s Duncan Smith leveled serious criticism towards the minister, stating that his opening statement did not give people clarity or guidance on what they have to do nor does it detail what the plan is until Christmas.

“There is no mention of direct provision, meat factories, no mention of travel and how travel is going to work,” said Smith.

The new colour coding system, which was announced a number of weeks ago, is a NPHET proposal, the minister said, stating that it still has to be discussed at government level as to how it might work. 

The government intends to move away from the phases of re-opening the country, and switch to a colour-coded system to indicate how counties, regions and the country as a whole are currently affected by Covid-19.

The plan would be ready in a number of weeks and will be debated in the Dáil, said the minister.

Concern over talk of national lockdown

The chair of the committee, Michael McNamara, raised concerns about the minister warning about a second lockdown.

The chair said there are currently 22 people in hospital with the virus, and six people in ICU. 

At the height of the pandemic when the initial lockdown was imposed, McNamara said there were 1,100 in hospital and 120 in ICU

“I don’t understand how you can possibly talk about a national lockdown given these figures,” he asked the minister. 

“What is the strategy here, what are we hoping to achieve,” asked McNamara, stating that the acting Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn previously told the committee that the virus cannot be eliminated and we must learn to live with it. 

The minister acknowledged that he had mentioned that Ireland is at a tipping point a number of times today, stating that he “it is not me making that up, that is NPHET’s position”.

Donnelly said he is merely emphasising that people need to remain on guard.

“Lockdowns work, we know they work because we did them here and they worked,” said the minister.

Winter plan

One of the government’s key focus is preparing for winter and ensuring their enough capacity in Irish hospitals.

He told the committee members that a comprehensive winter plan is being developed. 

“It won’t be cheap,” he said, adding that it will be the most comprehensive winter plan the country has ever seen. 

In relation to private hospitals, the minister said the HSE is using private hospitals right now, but added that tenders have been issued to deal with diagnostics, services, and surge capacity.

While the minister said he had no criticism of the last government in terms of buying up private hospital capacity, he said it didn’t work. 

Donnelly said he did not want to “block purchase” resources this winter.

In a statement released after the Minister’s appearance before the Committee, the Irish Medical Organisation’s Dr Pádraig McGarry said that the winter season “will put unprecedented pressure on our health system, which was already unfit for purpose prior to the emergence of Covid-19″.

He said that waiting lists, which were already long, had increased further due to infection control and social distancing guidelines.

The IMO is hugely disappointed that we have not yet seen a comprehensive modular build programme which would alleviate the pressure. GPs need to be able to refer patients to acute settings and consultants need to be able to see those patients in a safe and timely manner.

Responding to confirmations from the Minister that the winter flu vaccine would be delayed by two weeks, Dr McGarry said that this was “very concerning”.

He said GPs around the country need to put additional plans and measures into place to administer vaccines this year and need certainty about supplies, dates and resources.

Reopening pubs only when safe to do so

The minister was also asked about when pubs might reopen. 

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The public health advice from NPHET is that pubs cannot open right now, he said. Donnelly said there are not many clusters coming from restaurants, which is why they were allowed to reopen.

The moment it is deemed safe for pubs to open, they need to open, said the minister.

Testing and tracing did slow down when significant cases were identified in the three counties, admitted the minister. 

“We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Donnelly also confirmed to the committee that randomised testing at airports will be rolled out, stating that it is part of a full suite of measures at airports.

The minister said a number of other countries had also introduced randomised testing at airports. He said the data shows that the majority of case numbers are not associated with travel abroad.

Nursing homes was also discussed at today’s committee meeting. People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny asked if a commission a public inquiry into deaths in nursing homes will be established. 

The minister said consideration is needed as to what the best approach is for the families of people who have passed away, but added: “We may well end up there… I am definitively open to the idea.”

On the issue of outbreaks in meat factories, he said there have been 23 meat plant inspections in August and 22 of them were unannounced.

Recently, Donnelly sparked controversy when he compared sending kids back to school to that of driving a car or jumping on a trampoline. Addressing the matter today, the minister said his comment did cause genuine hurt and concern.

He said the two were not comparable, stating that it was in his head as his own child had hurt their arm while on a trampoline. “I certainly didn’t mean to add to any anxiety,” he said.

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