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Taoiseach: 'Over 2,000 cases per day would significantly challenge the contact tracing system'

The Taoiseach said there are 700 contact tracers employed.

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said if the country reaches 2,000 Covid cases per day, it would be very challenging for the contact tracing system.  

Speaking at Government Buildings yesterday, he announced that Ireland will introduce fresh lockdown measures beginning on Christmas Eve – with various restrictions kicking in in the following days and weeks.

He said the Government was acting “quickly and aggressively” to try to suppress the soaring case numbers.

Yesterday, a further 970 new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Ireland, with 13 deaths recorded.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said if no action was taken, and cases continues to rise at the same trajectory they are, the country could hit 2,000 cases by New Year’s Eve.

There is capacity to handle 140,000 tests per week, with the Taoiseach confirming yesterday that there are 700 contact tracers employed. 

In October, when there was a spike in cases, the contact tracing system was near collapse, with the HSE being forced to ask more than 2,000 people who received a positive Covid-19 test result during a particular week to alert their own close contacts. 

The HSE said at the time that this was due to the “unprecedented pressure” on Ireland’s contact tracing system over that week. 

Contact tracers normally inform close contacts of infected cases of their status and help arrange for them to be tested. 

When asked if the contact tracing system could handle the mounting case numbers, particularly if they hit the 2,000 mark, Martin said:

That would be very challenging, that would be difficult.

The Taoiseach said the HSE had informed him that they had increased the contact tracing workforce, confirming there are now 700 contact tracers employed. 

He added:

If you get up to 2,000 that is reaching very significant levels which would challenge contact tracing.

New restrictions

Ireland is returning to the highest level of its Covid-19 response – Level 5 – with some adjustments, such as allowing shops to remain open.

The measures will initially remain in place until January 12.

Martin said the government was making decisions on the assumption that the new UK variant of Covid-19 was already in Ireland.

“We have to act as if this mutant variant is in the country – we don’t have definitive proof, but clearly something is going on there in terms of the change, the scale and rapidity of the growth,” he said. 

The Taoiseach confirmed that there is no evidence this new variant has had an impact on hospitalisations in the UK.

Concern over the strain has led to a slew of European countries, including Ireland, suspending flights from Britain.

UK health officials have said that initial modelling and research suggests that the new variant may be 70% more infectious that other strains.

However, this week, Irish public health experts, such as the director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory Dr Cillian De Gascun, said the strain is “a cause for concern” but that the evidence is not there yet to say for sure that it is more infectious.

“I don’t think we have seen the evidence for that interpretation at this point in time,” he said.

Certainly there are significant case numbers in various regions of the UK and it has become the dominant strain over the last four or five weeks, certainly it’s a cause for concern. There are some genetic markers that might explain why it would be more infective, and perhaps might be more efficient at transmitting, but we haven’t seen the hard evidence for that.

Despite this, De Gascun said that due to the infection rates in the southeast of the UK it is “quite important and prudent” to operate on a precautionary basis.

Chair of NPHET’s modelling group Professor Philip Nolan also said this week:

It’s not to say the new variant is here or isn’t here, there’s no evidence that it is, there’s no need to read these rapidly high case counts as evidence that it must be here.

“It’s clear from the level of social contact that we’re seeing that this could account for those very high growth rates,” he said.

New variant

Martin acknowledged that a body of work had to be done on the impact of the new variant, but said there has been a rise in the case numbers, regardless.

“There is without question a rapid increase in the cases – the actual reason for that – is it socialisation? Or the variant of the virus – the mutant variant? Or is it a combination of both?”

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He said he spoke to UK experts yesterday morning about the new variant.

“They are confident that this variant is responsible for increased transmission. They are growing more and more confident, they have to do more research, I acknowledge that,” he said. 

“But a lot of people believe it is inconceivable that it would not be in Ireland given our close proximity to the UK and people travelling over,” he said.

The Taoiseach said the government does have to apply a “precautionary principle”, stating:

“We do have to work on the basis that it’s here. I think it would be irresponsible if we worked on the basis that it wasn’t here.”

“The figures speak for themselves in terms of growth. Something different has happened in the last ten days, there is no doubt about that.”

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