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Donnelly says Covid protocols in meat factories had been working as NPHET advice on restrictions published

New restrictions on people in the counties Kildare, Laois and Offaly came into effect from today, and will remain in place for two weeks.

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Updated Aug 8th 2020, 2:10 PM

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has defended the government’s decision to impose restrictions on Kildare, Offaly and Laois from today for the next two weeks.

The Minister for Health made an impromptu appearance on RTÉ’s Brendan O’Connor show to defend the government’s decision to ask people in these three counties to restrict their movements for the next two weeks in an attempt to control the spread of the virus.

His comments came as the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) to the government, which emphasises the need for the restrictions to “disrupt the current pattern of disease transmission”, was published this afternoon.

“There’s a high prevalence of Covid-19 in the three counties,” Donnelly said today. “So what NPHET were discussing was do we want and see what happens, and their view is there’s a very high likelihood that the cases from clusters would spill out into the community.”

Donnelly also said that there wasn’t awareness of this 10 days ago (when there were over 80 confirmed cases on one day) and insisted there was testing capacity to test people with symptoms in the area, amid claims that the testing centre in Tullamore was closed.

There has been a significant rise in confirmed Covid-19 cases in the past two weeks in these three counties, linked to four meat factories and some direct provision centres.

There have been 226 cases of Covid-19 in Kildare, Laois and Offaly over the past 14 days, representing nearly half of all cases in Ireland.

Checks in meat factories

Of the four affected meat factories, two are located in Co Kildare. O’Brien Fine Foods in Timahoe, Co Kildare halted its meat processing operation, with the exception of a handful of warehouse staff, after over 80 of its more than 240 workers tested positive.

Another meat factory in Naas, Co Kildare was also a confirmed site of a cluster in the region and shut its operation after more than 30 staff members tested positive.

When asked on RTÉ Radio whether meat factories had been subjected to rigorous health inspections that pubs and restaurants had, the Health Minister said: “Yes they have”.

“Ireland was the first country in Europe to introduce protocols for the meat factories, and very extensive testing was done,” he said, referring to the start of the pandemic when 1,100 cases in meat factories were confirmed.

“There were very, very few cases all the way through July, so the measures were working – there were temperature checks, screenings, masks, perspex, inspections, etc.”

When asked if they consulted any of the local business bodies in any of the counties before announcing this decision, Donnelly said “No, I don’t think that would have been appropriate, this is a public health measure”.

In moving quickly, we are protecting the local economy as well.

He said that in testing and tracing those at the factories, they moved a lot quicker than the state would have three months ago.

When asked why a testing centre in Tullamore was closed, forcing at least one family to drive to the Aviva stadium in Dublin to get tested, Donnelly said “as the need for testing was reduced, the testing centres were shut down when it was appropriate to do so”.

Don’t forget, the people in those testing centres were dentists, physiotherapists, dental nurses, clinicians that were being pulled out of their normal jobs to staff the testing centres.

Explaining the government’s decision, Donnelly said that “there comes a point where you have to act to stop the spread in the community”.

“Ultimately it is a judgement call, ultimately it comes down to public health expertise, looking at the epidemiology, looking at the spread of the virus and making a call as to when it is reasonable to ask people to make sacrifices.”

NPHET advice

In the letter from acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn to Donnelly advising of the need for restrictions yesterday, “significant concerns” were expressed about the situation in Kildare, Laois and Offaly.

Dr Glynn said that there were multiple clusters of the virus but that community transmission remained low at this time.

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He said: “Given the scale of the current outbreaks, there is now a significant volume of infection in the region of Kildare, Laois and Offaly and a real risk that this could spread much more widely in the community in the coming days and weeks.”

The measures proposed represent a “proactive and proportionate response” to the situation, according to Glynn.

Elsewhere in the letter, he said the NPHET emphasised the importance of proactive testing in high-risk population groups and high-risk workplace settings, and that the “serial programme of testing in nursing homes will recommence next week”. 

Dr Glynn added that the “national solidarity” has been at the core of the response to date, and it is “vital this is maintained across the country” going forward.

With reporting from Sean Murray 

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